By Eric Acre, Staff Writer ||

The start of April marks the start of Autism Awareness Month nationwide, and, as someone whose life has been heavily affected by autism, I thought I would take some time, for those that don’t know, to define exactly what autism is and why they should care about it.

Autism is a developmental disability that tends to develop within the first three years of a child’s life, and can affect an individual’s language, attention span, ability to learn, and ability to develop relationships, just to name a few symptoms. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it presents itself to varying degrees in each person who is affected by it. Severe cases may be mute, or completely antisocial, or prone to focusing obsessively on a single task or item. There is no cure for autism, and, while there is extensive ongoing research as to its causes, science has been unable to pinpoint an exact gene or set of genetic information that is responsible for causing the disorder.

You may find yourself saying “Well, I don’t have autism, and nobody in my family does, so why should I care?” Well, the number of diagnosed cases of autism has been rising dramatically since the 1980s, and today, in 2014, it affects one out of every 68 children born in America. That’s a 30 percent increase from the one in 88 that were affected two years ago. It is believed that the rise in occurrences is due in part to increased exposure to heavy metals, infectious diseases, pesticides, and other chemicals before birth. This means that, if and when the time comes that you decide to have a child, there is a greater chance than any other time in history that your child will fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. So, what does it mean for you if you do have an autistic child?

The Autism Society estimates that the lifetime cost of caring for an autistic individual is between $3.5 million and $5 million, and that autism costs the United States more than $90 billion each year in insurance, medication, housing, transportation, and other services. The numbers show that this is a national problem that warrants extensive research, but in addition to the national statistics, there exists an entire array of problems for the families of these autistic individuals.

Here I will use myself and my family as a prime example. My sister was born with autism, and suffered from thousands of epileptic seizures during her early childhood, leaving her permanently developmentally challenged and mentally retarded. It is easy to imagine the terror and apprehension going through my parents’ minds as this was happening all throughout my sister’s childhood. (This is most likely the point at which my mother will start crying when she reads this.) After having one healthy child (my oldest sister), nothing could have prepared them for a child that needed to take medicine every day just to function, and who could not learn or speak like other children. The medical costs, the constant worry, and the sleepless nights, all came with the territory.

As for myself and my oldest sister, the effect was not quite as dramatic, but we have both had our fair share of traumatic experiences as members of the family. We had a sister who could get anything she wanted and had no concept of the idea of “needing to stop” doing something. We were there to witness our sister screaming at the top of her lungs and tearing clothes off of the racks in department stores, our mother in tears, leaving us to explain to shoppers why our mother wasn’t a horrible person.

Autism affects everyone that is close to it, and, despite how much I love my sister and the rest of my family, I don’t want others to have to go through what my family and I went through. With the rate of autism increasing, I urge you to spread awareness for this life-altering disability. Be in the know. Early action is the key. May you have a healthy family, and spread awareness so that others may as well.

For more information on autism and Autism Awareness Month, click here.

Eric Acre, a freshman, is a staff writer. Email him at