Autism is a developmental disorder of the brain, due to which the affected child behaves unusually. The child perceives the world, the happenings and people around him differently from a normal child. It is a widely spread problem affecting one in every 500 kids. Some may have mild autism, some may be severely affected. Autism often goes undetected because an autistic child otherwise looks absolutely normal without any physical handicaps. It is mostly the parents who first detect something lacking in the child as she grows. It is therefore important for all parents to be aware and educated about diseases like autism, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD), to spot any symptoms and begin treatment accordingly.
Causes of autism
Human brain has several small cells which interact with each other and send relevant messages to different parts of the body due to which we react to our environment, have reflexes, different senses, emotions, can communicate and co-relate the happenings around us. Every cell has specific functions. Some of these cells, especially those that affect communication, emotion and senses, don’t develop properly or get damaged causing autism.
The cause of autism is still a mystery, but some observations and studies do pint towards heredity. Another hypothesis is that due to some reason the brain gets damaged in the prenatal stage causing autism.
Typical characteristics of an autistic child
Autistic people have no physical handicap but they have unusual social and communication skills. The degree of the various typical characteristics of autism is different in different people because different people have different degrees of autism. Most common behavioral characteristics of autism are-
- Speech and language not properly developed. Autistic people find it difficult to express themselves clearly in verbal language. They have trouble linking words to their meaning.
- Keep repeating words or sentences or some favorite song.
- Cannot understand others emotions. For example, you are angry and scolding the child. He will not understand your anger and keep smiling at you or just look away at something else that attracts him.
- Slow learner. In severe cases even simple things like brushing ones teeth is a very difficult job.
- Do not like change in routine and environment. They get upset if their room setting is changed or they are taken to some unknown place.
- Sensitive to light, sound, crowd and other external stimulation. Some do not even like being touched.
- Lack of eye contact.
- Keep to themselves and do not mingle with others.
Symptoms of autism
Autism is a developmental disorder that begins at birth or within first two and half years of life. It is difficult to detect autism in infants because autistic children are physically perfectly normal as infants. It is difficult to distinguish any unusual behavior as symptom of autism because normal infants too keep repeating actions and sounds and do not always respond to their environment. The symptoms become clear as the child grows to one and half to two years of age, when speech and social interactions begin. It is difficult to diagnose autism accurately in the infancy stage. It is mostly parents who first start noticing unusual signs in the child.
In autistic children there is delay in or deviance from normal pattern of development in three areas of behaviour – social relationships & interactions, language & communication, activities and interests. Symptoms to watch out for-
- Delayed speech with unusual pattern with high pitched or flat voice.
- Keeps repeating words or sentences.
- Does not show interest in people, animals around.
- Uninterested in baby play, even with parents.
- Cover their ears or start crying at the sound of crackers or balloons bursting
- Does not understand your facial expressions and emotions of happiness, tears, anger etc.
- Temper tantrums at seemingly petty (for normal people) issues.
- Avoidance of eye contact- Many normal infants do not appear to see people and so may not look into the eyes. But autistic infants the gaze is brief and out of the corner of the eye.
- Hearing- Autistic children may not always be deaf, but due to abnormal perception they do not respond to sounds or their name being called. On the other hand some sounds like balloon bursting or crackers can cause extreme distress to the autistic child.
- Do not point out things of their interest.
- Prefer activities which require no verbal interaction with others. They prefer individual activities like sketching, swimming etc.
- Poor handwriting and learning disabilities.
Wing (Wing L., Autistic Children, 2nd edn., London, Constable,, 1980) suggests certain indications in infants which may point to possible autism. Wing describes two kinds of autistic infants- the placid, undemanding baby who rarely cries and the reverse, the screaming baby who is difficult to pacify. Babies may also display behavior like rocking, head banging or scratching their cot or pram. They may develop an interest for shiny or twinkling objects but have an apparent lack of interest in people, animals when out in the pram.
Treatment of autism
Autism has no cure but with appropriate treatment/therapies the patient gradually learns to manage basic life skills on his own. The treatment of autism requires joint efforts and total involvement of physiotherapists, psychiatrists, special teachers, doctors and parents. The treatment differs with every patient depending on his particular needs. Some kids with mild autism are even prescribed to join a normal mainstream school. Some may require life long treatment and support. The therapies used to help autistic children are-
- Occupational therapy- This therapy involves teaching basic life skills like bathing, brushing, dressing etc.
- Physical therapy- Physical therapy involves physical exercises (through dance, aerobics, sports, swimming etc.) and other physical measures like massage, to improve the reflexes and help the child have better control of body movements.
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)- This therapy aims at treating inappropriate behavior like aggressiveness, repetition etc., by rewarding good behaviors and ignoring the others.
- Sensory integration therapy- This therapy aims at making the child understand different senses like sound, texture etc. The child is taught to handle different textures, materials and sound.
- Play therapy- Play therapy aims to improve the social interaction skills of the autistic child. The therapist takes leads from the child’s interests and creates games accordingly. The child learns to interact with other kids and people around him through play.
- Communication therapy- The child is taught to speak words and small sentences to convey what he wants, through speech therapy. In some cases the children are taught to communicate through pictures, when verbal language is too difficult for them.
- Dietary modifications- This involves addition of some nutrients in the child’s diet which are believed to be beneficial for the brain and body and removing certain things from the menu which is perceived to trigger some distress in the child.
- Medication- Autism as such has no particular medicines, but some kids are prescribed medicines to control autism related problems like depression, anxiety, temper tantrums etc.
Every treatment requires tremendous love, patience and total involvement. Try to keep your home and surroundings physically safe for these special innocent kids. With love, care and patience they do learn to be independent. They have the capacity to make you smile through your tears and anger and feel happy with their little big achievements.