HONOLULU -- April is Autism Awareness month, a time for the public to gain knowledge about autism and the autism community.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments; communication difficulties; and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Signs and symptoms begin to show up early in life from one to three years of age, but according to a 2006 issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, the average age of diagnosis is five years.

The number of reported cases of autism is currently on the rise. However, it is not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting of autism, an actual increase in the number of cases, or a combination of both.

According to the Center for Disease Control, about 1 in 88 American children are diagnosed within the autism spectrum disorder. This is a 78 percent increase compared to a decade ago. The report also stated that certain population groups have higher trends, and that boys (1 in 54) are typically more affected than girls (1 in 252).

There is currently no defined cause for autism, or a specific treatment for the disorder. This is one of the most devastating aspects of autism, which often leaves the parents of autistic children with a feeling of helplessness.

However there are many support groups, and therapies (occupational, speech, early intervention services and applied behavioral analysis intervention) with evidenced-based treatments that have been shown to increase the quality of life for the person affected by autism.

Tricare is leading the way for providing services to persons with autism through its Extended Care Health Option Autism Services Demonstration program. This program provides a specified number of ABA therapy hours per week at a cost set by the service member's pay grade.

Additionally, the Army has a partnership with respite care providers to allow parents and caregivers of a person with autism time to recharge and take a break; something that these parents and caregivers often forget are unable to do.

Another resource available to service members and Department of Defense civilians is the Exceptional Family Member Program, a mandatory enrollment program that works with other military and civilian agencies to provide a comprehensive, coordinated, and multidisciplinary approach for medical, educational and community support services to families with special needs.

Some of the many activities this month around the world include: World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), fundraisers, and autism walks such as the Walk Now for Autism Speaks in Honolulu (April 21).

(Editor's Note: Capt. Todd Heer works in the Nutrition Care Division at Tripler Army Medical Center.)