World Autism Awareness Day 2021: What you need to know

Jennifer White-Johnson sits with her 8-year-old Black and autistic son, Kevin 'Knox' Johnson III.

(CNN)In many ways, Kevin "Knox" Johnson III is just like most 8-year-olds.

The kid enjoys building marble runs. He's obsessed with knock-knock jokes. In school, he excels at math and learning languages. He also loves to sing along to musicals, and he dreams about sharing with the world the beats he makes in GarageBand.
But the Baltimore boy is different from other kids in one major way: He is autistic, and his mother said he embraces that as a superpower.
    "My son is joyful and whimsical and always fun to be around," said Jennifer White-Johnson, Knox's mom. "From the very beginning of his life, I have worked to make sure I am giving him the tools to be confident in his identity and comfortable with his unique skills, his differences and the beauty of the person he is."
      While the Johnson family celebrates autism every day, the party is particularly meaningful on April 2, annual World Autism Awareness Day. This is an event that encourages awareness about the existence of autism and the roughly 4 million autistic individuals around the world.
        For some members of the autism community, the day also kicks off a month-long campaign toward greater acceptance and appreciation of autism. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, parents like White-Johnson will spend the next four weeks sharing insights about their autistic children to help outsiders understand more about autism.
        Many advocates see the annual event as an opportunity to act on behalf of autistic individuals and lobby for more services, equal treatment and an individualized approach to just about everything.
          "No matter how you choose to look at it, autism is a part of the human fabric," said Steve Silberman, author of "Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity." "Some of the things we know now that we didn't know 10 years ago is just how prevalent it really is, and that autistic people are more like neurotypical people than anybody has thought for decades."

          What is autism?

          Autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children annually, according to 2020 data released by the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. This number represents a 10% increase over 2014, when the estimate was 1 in 59.
          Generally, it is seen as a different way of thinking.
          If we picture people as computers, autistic individuals have one-of-a-kind operating systems that enable them to process life and experience the world differently from the rest of the human population.
          Researchers know relatively little about the condition that is considered the fastest-growing developmental disability. They know on average that autistic brains are larger and that they "prune," or shed, excess neurons more slowly than neurotypical brains.
          Scientists also have identified that autism affects linkages between the parts of the brain that govern emotions, sensory input and executive functioning.
          Multiple studies have proven there is no link between vaccines and autism, a misconception propagated by a small but vocal group of skeptics.
          Additional research has shown that autistic individuals are less able to pick up on some of the socially rich features of an environment and incorporate them into a broader understanding of the world.
          Experts simply don't know why.
          Stephen Shore, clinical assistant professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, described autism as a mystery and a puzzle, and noted that one of the biggest challenges in understanding the condition is that it presents differently in every patient.
          "When you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person; that experience tells you nothing about autism as a whole," said Shore, who is autistic. "We need to be aware of, accept, and appreciate the incredible diversity that we find within the autism spectrum. What that suggests is that we need to get to know autistic people as individuals as opposed to a collection of characteristics."

          The latest autism research

          Research into autism is ongoing.
          One March 2021 paper indicated the prevalence of autism in England is much higher than scientists there originally thought.
          Another study co-authored by Kevin Pelphrey, the Harrison-Wood Jefferson Scholars Foundation Professor of Neurology at the University of Virginia Brain Institute in Charlottesville, suggested that autism may be fundamentally different in girls and boys.
          As of press time this paper was set to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Brain.
          Pelphrey's work is the latest in a series of recent investigations into a fascinating -- and perplexing -- statis