- - Monday, April 19, 2021

Babies are a wonder. You stand over them as they sleep, in a state of awe, wondering what life has in store for them. And, if it happens to be your child, whether you’re equipped to provide the skills they need to live a life abundant once they strike out on their own. 

The experience of parenting is a challenge and a joy, a series of heartbreaks and exultations that never end even after the kids are grown, living lives of their own. That’s how most of us experience it but, for some, it’s quite different. 

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2020, 1 out of every 54 children was identified as being somewhere on the autism spectrum disorder, defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as “a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.”

Autism disorders usually present in the first couple of years of life and, like many other illnesses that disturb the mind and the nervous system, it’s not just one thing. Right now, spectrum disorders include autism and, the NIHM says, Asperger’s — a neurodevelopment disability that affects the ability to effectively interact and communicate with people; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development; and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), a catchall term for everything that doesn’t fit into one of the other subgroups. 

April is National Autism Month, a time for reflection on what for the parents of the afflicted can be a source of discouragement — but not because their children are differently abled. On the contrary, the parents of autistic children I know are amazing in their positivity about their situation and their children. The discouragement comes because so many educational institutions are unable to provide much more than a place to go for six hours a day and, after that, nothing.

That’s not for lack of trying. There are plenty of special education programs run by dedicated professionals who work hard to help the severely autistic connect with the world around them. Unfortunately, at least until the advent of the information age, there wasn’t much one could do. We didn’t know enough.

That’s changing, thanks to an international effort to put order into chaos and find ways to integrate those on the spectrum into what’s going on in the world around them. Thanks to advances over the last decade in the development of new, web-based technologies and improvements in connectivity and device portability, hope is rising. 

Another reason for hope is that the effort to find solutions has gone global. In 2007, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, a member of the Qatari royal family, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly proposed the creation of a World Autism Awareness Day.

She got what she wanted and it’s now observed every April 2. More than that though, Qatar — an American ally located on the Arabian Peninsula — is putting millions of dollars into autism awareness campaigns and funding research into spectrum disorders as well as care for those on the spectrum here in the United States.

One project that looks very promising Qatar is helping to underwrite is work being done at Florida’s Dan Marino Foundation to develop a STEAM enrichment program (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) that uses a modified robotics curriculum and instruction plan written especially for students with autism.

The breakthrough developments in home computing, wireless networks and portable devices have been life-changing for us all but, for those who are on the spectrum it may open up a whole new world that allows them to interact with each other and with people with whom they could not communicate previously. Doors are opening that people just a few decades ago didn’t even know were there, never mind not having a key.

The results thus far are promising. The research dollars coming from overseas should be matched or even exceeded by private philanthropies here in the U.S. It may be premature to say a solution is close but the adaptive devices and programs currently in development could do so much to change so many lives for so little money it makes no sense not to invest.

• Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is now affiliated with several Washington, D.C.-based public policy organizations. He appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

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