Once a 'Dire' Diagnosis, a Look at the Evolution of Autism Awareness

Aug 31, 2017

In the last few decades autism rates have skyrocketed in the United States. There are theories as to why, but many point to increased awareness and thus diagnosis, as at least partly responsible for the uptick.

Forty years ago, the condition was still relatively unknown to the general public and a diagnosis of autism could mean a lifetime of abuse and discrimination. 

"At the time it was a medical diagnosis that was very dire, that was not given a lot of hope, not given any education or treatment."

"A lot of children were institutionalized, were sent to Winnebago [Mental Health Institute] or other places. And at the time it was a medical diagnosis that was very dire, that was not given a lot of hope, not given any education or treatment. They were sort of just sent away," says Emily Levine, executive director of the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin

She says it was "devastating" for both families and people diagnosed with autism. So in the mid-1970s, a group of parents founded the Autism Society as a support group for people who had children with autism.

Since then, the organization has become a support system for both caregivers and those with autism, helping them navigate a sometimes challenging world. 

"There still are a lot of people who do not understand what autism is, so they're not as willing to make accommodations or make allowances for people."

"One of the things we see is that behaviors are misinterpreted. That anybody who does something unusual or moves in an unusual way or responds in a way that is not expected... that people will reject [them] or worry about [them], just because it's not typical," says Levine. 

For this reason, Levine is still a fan of awareness campaigns, even though she admits they're a bit "out of vogue."

She says, "There still are a lot of people who do not understand what autism is, so they're not as willing to make accommodations or make allowances for people that sometimes have behaviors that are not entirely in their control." 

The Autism Society will be hosting Dylan’s Run, a 2 mile run-walk for Autism to the Indian Summer Festival, on Sunday, September 10.