Autism ... it's a word that parents often want to avoid hearing at all costs. It's sometimes described as feeling like their child that "once was" has been lost.
This is what I often hear from families when I tell them their child is on the autism spectrum.
I hear the stress and the strain and the confusion and the angst. I hear the anxiety and fear of "what will be" for their child's future.
I usually tell this news to parents of very young children - two years and even younger. These are valid feelings that should not be dismissed or repressed.
They should not be told to "hide their feelings" or "not feel this way" - because they do feel this way. And that's because there is often a severe misunderstanding of what autism is.
Autism, in and of itself, is not something to be feared or feel shame about.
It is a neurological difference that impacts the way a person sees the world, interacts with the world, and understands the world.
So how can we help autistic people to live happy and healthy lives?
Firstly, let's create a world that is better built for them.
Just as we install ramps because we don't expect wheelchair users to climb stairs, let's take into account many autistic people's sensory sensitivities, and need for structure and predictability, when designing our public spaces.
Secondly, to prevent future difficulties and mental health problems that often arise without early supports and services for autistic people, we need to act early.
Know the signs of autism in a young child; if, between 12-30 months of age, your child is not showing objects to others, imitating others' actions, using gestures like pointing, responding to their name, smiling at others or making eye contact, speak to your local maternal and child health nurse. You can also use a free, evidence-based, early detection mobile app I developed at La Trobe University - ASDetect.
Because we all need to stop avoiding the "A" word, and accept that autism is along the spectrum of the human condition.
By detecting children early and providing supports for them and their families, we're giving our children the best opportunity to thrive, regardless of their neurological make-up.
Dr Josephine Barbaro is a Senior Research Fellow at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University. With thanks to Penny Robinson, Nancy Sadka and Naomi Chainey for their valuable input.