‘‘Is there something seriously wrong with my child?'' the anxious mother asked me. I tried to reassure her and told her that we would have to conduct a few tests to arrive at a diagnosis. In my mind, I knew that I was dealing with yet another case of autism. In many cases, parents are not even aware of autism and if anything seems amiss, the only thing that comes to their mind is mental retardation. So, what is autism? Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition that mainly affects the way an individual relates to his or her environment and their interaction with other people. Children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties in social communication and interaction. Often restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests like hand flapping are also seen.
The word spectrum implies that there is a variation in the degree to which it affects different individuals. No two children with the same diagnosis would appear similar. Some children may lead relatively normal lives and could be schooled in the mainstream while others could require assistance and support throughout their lives. The causes of autism are not completely known and some genetic factors are considered responsible for the condition. Autism cannot be cured, but can surely be managed if the golden principle of early intervention is followed.
Different milestones are attained at different ages and each child takes his or her time. But below are a few pointers that parents should be aware of:
- Delay in learning how to speak. Not gaining new words.
- Doesn't notice or react when caregiver leaves or returns.
- Doesn't follow simple instructions.
- Doesn't imitate actions or words.
- Repeating words and phrases over and over without communicating intent.
- Difficulty in communicating needs or desires.
- Obsessive attachment to unusual objects like electric switches or a preoccupation with a specific topic of interest.
- Repetitive body movements.
- Strong need for sameness order or routine.
- Clumsiness/ abnormal posture.
- Fascination with spinning objects, moving pieces, parts of toys.
- Stacking or piling of toys.
- No make believe play or pretend play, no group games.
- Difficulty or failure in making friends.
- Sensory problems like under reacting or over reacting to sensory stimuli like touch or sound. Resistance to being touched.
- Difficulty in regulating emotions- expressing extreme anger, sadness or happiness which is disproportionate to the stimuli.
- Unusual or inappropriate body language/ gestures/ facial expressions
- Avoiding eye contact, lack of interest in other people, prefer to be alone.
- Difficulty in understanding other people's feelings, reactions, and non-verbal cues.
- Speaking in abnormal tone, odd rhythm or pitch.
- Losing a skill that had been acquired.
These are just a few pointers and not an all exhaustive list. Similarly, if parents notice a couple of things mentioned in the list, they need not jump to conclusions. Consult your paediatrician at the earliest if you have any cause of concern.
As mentioned earlier, early intervention is the key. Occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioural therapy programmes, parental counselling are different intervention programmes that assist children with autism spectrum disorder. The entire process of bringing up a child with autism spectrum disorder could be emotionally, physically and financially draining for the parents. It becomes all the more essential that parents function as one cohesive unit. The support and care that spouses can give each other is irreplaceable. Developing a strong social network, communicating with other parents, forming a parent support group, involving the entire family by educating them all go a long way in maintaining the physical and emotional health of the parents. It is also essential that parents take short breaks by leaving the child for small periods in trusted hands.
Most importantly, it is essential to know more about the disorder. A dear friend of mine who had never heard of the word autism till her son was diagnosed with it, who was from a commerce background, started her journey about learning more about this disorder and today after 15 years and innumerable courses and a degree, has started her own school for children with ASD. Not only has she given her son a better life, but has given hope to many other parents like her.
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