Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Review of the Literature for Health Educators

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

According to Healthy People 2020, one population confronted with health disparities is that of individuals living with disabilities. Among these individuals are children living with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Increasing numbers of children in the United States have been diagnosed with ASDs, a group of developmental disorders for which no specific cause or cure has been conclusively identified. Increasing media exposure as well as legislation addressing ASDs reflects the increasing awareness of ASDs as a significant public health issue. However, whereas ASDs have become an issue of great interest to the general public, the amount of health education literature addressing autism spectrum disorders is extremely limited. This paper provides health educators with a review of literature concerning autism spectrum disorders, specifically its background, prevalence, possible causes, symptoms and diagnostic methods. Furthermore, the potential roles played by health educators in serving individuals (e.g., parents, educators, medical providers) who support children with ASDs is suggested through the application of National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc. responsibilities and competencies for health educators.

This paper was submitted to the Journal on February 3, 2011, revised and accepted for publication on June 25, 2011.

INTRODUCTION

An overarching goal of Healthy People 2020 is that of eliminating health disparities. (1) People with disabilities must confront a number of health disparities as they are more likely to use alcohol and drugs and are less likely to receive routine oral care, engage in physical exercise and to be overweight or obese. (1) Furthermore, adults with intellectual disorders may experience specific health disparities in the areas of vision and hearing impairments, weight, cardiovascular disease, cancer, psychiatric conditions and oral health. (2)

Americans living with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are among the population facing such health disparities. Research suggests individuals with ASDs may be vulnerable to co-morbid disorders, specifically anxiety, (3,4) tic disorders, (4) depressed mood, (3,4) epileptiform activity (5) and motor delay (6) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (7,8) Furthermore, children with ASDs may demonstrate frequent feeding problems, which may have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of life. (9)

Whether Americans living with ASDs experience health disparities because of the disorder itself or because of behaviors and comorbid diseases related to ASDs, it is evident public health officials and medical providers must address the health needs of this population. Federal and state legislators have also made autism research and policy development a priority as never before, as indicated by the increasing generation of legislation, funding and research relevant to autism spectrum disorders. (10)

However, despite the numerous efforts to understand and address the health needs of autism spectrum disorders, the general public may lack familiarity with the needs of this population. Furthermore, the limited amount of health education research published suggests a lack of familiarity with autism spectrum disorders within the profession of health education. However, due to the increasing numbers of individuals diagnosed with ASDs, it is imperative that health education increase its professional literature relevant to serving individuals with autism spectrum disorders as well as their caregivers. Therefore, the purpose of the current paper is to provide health educators a review of literature concerning autism spectrum disorders. Furthermore, the authors provide recommendations for providing health education to caregivers (e.g., parents, educators, medical providers) of children with ASDs. With an increased awareness of autism spectrum disorders serving as a foundation, health educators play a critical role in providing families and professionals with the information needed to make educated decisions about health care services for children with ASDs. …