My niece Scarlett is seven-years-old. Her dad, my brother David, is in the Air Force stationed in Utah. He and his wife, Robin, have another little girl, six-year-old Ambria.

Scarlett loves animals, drawing, and snow skiing.

Scarlett is autistic.

She was diagnosed when she was a toddler when David and Robin realized that there may be an issue.

Autism has garnered a lot of attention over the last decade, for good reason. According to autismspeaks.org, one in 68 children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. The particular struggles people with autism face vary, and it's these variations that determine where a child with autism is on the spectrum. Autism, as defined by medlineplus.gov,

is a neurological and developmental disorder that begins early in childhood and lasts throughout a person's life. It affects how a person acts and interacts with others, communicates, and learns.

Nearly a third aren't able to communicate by speaking. Another third have intellectual disabilities. Others may be lower on the spectrum and have a particular difficulty with social skills or perform some sort of repetitive behavior.

Autism is typically diagnosed when a child is two or three years old, but some children are diagnosed as early at 18 months. As with most conditions, early intervention can make all the difference in the world. Having access to the appropriate services, like speech or occupational therapy, is important to the social and intellectual development of children who are autistic. 

The cause of autism isn't known, although researchers believe it may be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

(l-r) Ambria & Scarlett

Scarlett has flourished. Robin and David have been proactive about getting her the therapies she needs.

Her sister Ambria is Scarlett's best friend and biggest champion. They are close in age and partners in crime! Ambria is as outgoing as Scarlett is introverted. They are the perfect complement for one another.

Recently, David was transferred from Florida to Utah, and the transition has not been easy on Scarlett. Change is difficult for most people, but it's particularly difficult for someone with autism. However, with the love and guidance of her mother, she is adapting well. Utah is where she and the family have developed such a love of skiing.

Robin credits her strong marriage and their parental bonds with their children for helping Scarlett through the adjustment.

Scarlett & Her Family

Understanding autism for someone who hasn't been exposed to it or doesn't know someone who has it isn't easy. That's why events like the Joining Hands For Autism event this Saturday at St. Louis Catholic High School in Lake Charles are so important.

Community support and education is beneficial for the children and families affected by autism. The walk, community events, and awareness campaigns help us all to be better friends and neighbors to those who process the world a bit differently than we do.

My family can't imagine not having Scarlett in our world. She is proof that being diagnosed early, having support and love, and getting the proper therapies helps these children use all they have to bless all of us with what they are.