World Autism Awareness Day prompts panel discussion about autism diagnosis


Andrea Kurth

Thor Gudbrandsson, COO of the Golden Hat Foundation, speaks at a panel discussion about Autism at the School of Social Work on Wednesday. Gudbrandsson, whose son has autism, said the intelligence of people with the disorder is often underestimated.

Nicole Stiles

Autism diagnoses in the U.S. have been increasing, partly because more doctors understand the symptoms, local autism awareness advocates said at an on-campus panel on World Autism Awareness Day on Wednesday.

One in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which encompasses a number of social, communicative and behavioral development disorders, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to Suzanne Potts, interim executive director of the Autism Society of Greater Austin, the rise in autism spectrum diagnoses, which is up from 1 in 88 in 2012, is because of an improved understanding of symptoms that occur at a young age.

Potts said she believes diagnosing autism is a challenge in itself because of a lack of distinct medical guidelines regarding diagnosis. 

“There is not currently a medical test to diagnose autism,” Potts said. “There are assessment tests, but those become subjective to the person doing the testing. [Autism] is a spectrum disorder, which means no two people with autism are the same, making diagnostics even more difficult.”

According to Potts, creating an accepting environment for autistic people allows them to develop socially.

“Social perception is vital in the way they feel about themselves,” Potts said. “People identifying them in ways other than having autism provides support.”

Thor Gudbrandsson, chief operating officer of the Golden Hat Foundation, said understanding an autistic person’s ability for comprehension is often underestimated, leading to a belief that there is nothing that can be done to improve the person’s quality of life.

“Despite [the] very odd behaviors that some kids express, they are intellectually capable,” Gudbrandsson said. “They can be taught. They have dreams and aspirations and hopes for the future like everyone else.”

After doctors told him his son had a mental capacity of a 2-year-old, Gudbrandsson said he had little hope for his son’s future until he and his wife produced a documentary about autism symptom improvement.

“We realized he was so intelligent and could do so much more than we ever thought,” Gudbrandsson said. “Now he is interested in composing music and we look forward to him debuting his music at Carnegie Hall in December.”

Maria Hernandez, president and founder of Growing Roots, an organization that empowers and educates children with disabilities, said there is still room for improvement in autism awareness. 

“Every year we learn more about autism, and it’s more prominent in the media,” Hernandez said. “But there are still many cultures that don’t have this type of awareness.”