Living on the Spectrum - Part One

BANGOR, Maine (WABI) Autism was once considered a rare disorder affecting 1 in 10,000 children just 20 years ago.

Now, according to the Center for Disease Control, Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD affects 1 in every 68 children.

But with an increase in diagnosis comes a surge of education and understanding.

Cathy Dionne, Executive Director for the Autism Society of Maine says, "Autism is a developmental disability that really affects socialization and communication. Each individual is so different based on where they lie within the Spectrum."

Doctors have come a long way since the word Autism was first used in 1908.

In 2013, all subcategories of the disorder were folded into one and so named Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD.

Dionne says, "The Spectrum can be from a little bit lower where some individuals are completely non-verbal and may have a lot of sensory issues to other individuals, and we'll use the word Asperger's, they're more higher functioning."

Dionne recalls when her son was diagnosed 21 years ago. She says, "When he was diagnosed he was 15 months old. I remember when my doctor told me about it, going home and telling my family that he thought my son was artistic. Back then it was like, you didn't hear about this."

But she says a lot has changed since then. Dionne says, "We have come from knowing what Autism is to where do we need to go and how do we need to help individuals to really be in society and be as independent as they can. And we're really well on our way in doing that."

1 in 54 people in Maine are diagnosed with ASD, higher than the national prevalence of 1 in 68.

Experts say they don't have an exact answer yet as to why ASD rates are higher in the state, but say that a better understanding of the disorder and earlier detection are contributing factors.

Dionne says, "Maine seems to be doing a pretty good job at getting people diagnosed. We know the earlier you can diagnose the better off, the better chances they have of becoming independent."

With more than 3.5 million Americans living with ASD, society is starting to take notice as well.

Dionne says, "Society is finally sitting up and saying the rate is higher, there are more of these individuals around us. We need to learn more, we need to accept them more. We almost need to get into their world a little bit. We see that with TV shows coming out."

ABC's 'The Good Doctor' and the Netflix series 'Atypical' are giving people a glimpse into the disorder.

Dionne says, "I think it's a good thing. We're bringing the highlight to what Autism really is, the struggles that individuals have, but also the good pieces. There are a lot of great things that happen and we sometimes focus too much on the negative."

ASD is the fastest-growing developmental disability and there is currently no cure, but there is research being done.

Laurie Raymond of Spark says, "SPARK is a nationwide research project looking at the genetic causes of Autism."

Maine is home to 1 of 25 SPARK sites across the U-S seeking out participants and helping researchers find answers providing hope, a word frequently used among those in the A-S-D community.

Dionne says, "Individuals on the spectrum make great workers, they can go to college, they can drive, they can have a family. We just need to help them get that and to achieve those goals."

Raymond says, "I have a 30-year-old son with Autism. So, I feel like perhaps the path I traveled will be different and maybe better for some other folks."

Life is challenging for those living with autism and for the loved ones that care for them.

Wednesday night in Part 2 of Living on the Spectrum I spend some time with a Bangor mother and her three children. Two have ASD.