Autism is a complex neuro-developmental disorder that is visible in children as young as 12 months. Despite the obvious signs, the disorder remains undiagnosed in many children due to a lack of awareness. Autism is a very common disorder and it is estimated that around 350,000 children in Pakistan suffer from it. Though the condition cannot be cured, getting help from professionals and gathering more knowledge about the disorder can help people become more patient and understanding. To learn more about the disorder we invited Isma Khan, an expert on autism at the Mashion HQ. She answered your queries and enlightened us on the subject. Here’s everything that we learned from her.
1. What Is Autism?
Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a wide range of conditions which cause a person to develop repetitive behavioural patterns, and greatly effects their social interactions with other people. It has many subtypes, most of which are influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Since autism is a spectrum disorder, the symptoms and severity in each person may differ from anothers. While some people with the condition experience debilitating social problems, others may be able to function more independently. Isma explains autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder which according to her is categorised by two things — lack of communication and repetitive and stereotypical behaviours.
2. The Role Of An Autism Specialist
The job of an autism specialist is to provide behavioural interventions and supportive services to children with autism. Autistic children are usually confused with personality traits or with other developmental issues which, in most cases, even parents are unable to understand. According to our expert, it is important to seek help from someone who understands their symptoms better. She says, “These children express themselves in ways that laypersons may not comprehend well. You need someone who has studied behaviour analysis to work with such children.”
3. Vaccines Are Not Dangerous
The debate surrounding vaccines as a primary cause of autism have been going on for a long time. This has also led a large number of parents, especially in developing countries, to delay or refuse vaccines for their children. The role of MMR vaccine and those that contain thimerosal have mostly been questioned. To bust this misconception many methodologically sound, controlled epidemiological studies have been carried out and none of them have proven vaccines as a cause of autism. Isma also firmly believes that vaccines or the MMR do not lead to autism. “That theory has been disproved,” she says, and also urges parents who haven’t already gotten their children vaccinated to do so.
4. The Biggest Misconception
Despite the increasing awareness about autism, there are still a good deal of misconceptions that largely exist. These misinterpretations often lead to people, especially children with the disorder to feel isolated. Although people with Autism share difficulties in the core areas of social-communication, repetitive behaviours and sensory processing, they all have different abilities and interests. According to Isma, the biggest misconceptions are about the looks and speaking ability of such children. “People think that these children don’t look normal, when in reality there’s no specific look. Another one is that they’ll never speak. There’s no truth in both these assumptions.” She says.
5. Loud Noises Are A Real Trigger
Sensory sensitivity is common in all growing children, but most often outgrow it. Whereas in autistic children these sensitivities tend to last longer, but they can decrease over time. Children with this disorder are either oversensitive or under sensitive to noise, light, clothing, or temperature. This is because their senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste — absorb too much or too little information from the environment. “It is true that autism has sensory issues in all five senses. Some children may be hypersensitive, which means a noise which is loud to others may be extra loud to them,” explains our expert.
6. Autism Is A Lifelong Condition
Since every autistic child or adult deals with unique strengths and challenges, there’s no specific, set treatment for the disorder. A common and scientifically proven treatment for autism is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), but it can only help reduce the symptoms, or improve the severity of the condition. Isma confirms that autism is not curable and says, “There is no cure for autism. There is no one medicine that you can give and the child will be fine. It’s about consistent therapy which can reduce the symptoms over time. Autism is a lifelong condition”
7. The Major Symptoms
Autism comes with several distinct symptoms. Detecting the disorder isn’t possible through a particular medical test, but knowing these signs can help identify it. Although the severity of the symptoms varies widely among affected individuals, some common ones according to our expert include lack of social communication, avoidance of eye contact, lack of emotions and awareness, and repetitive behaviours. They also tend to live in their own world.
8. Early Intervention Is Key
The earlier, the better! Children with autism greatly benefit from early intervention. By early intervention, we mean the parents and family can start working on the child’s therapies and seek out the relevant services as soon as possible. Therapies are the programs or sessions aimed at helping your child’s development. Our expert swears by the importance of early intervention and believes that it can help reduce the symptoms of autism over time. “If you see the child displaying red flags, jump in right away, because early intervention is the best thing that you can do.”
9. The Perfect Age For Diagnosis
Diagnosing autism is quite difficult, but the signs, like the child’s behaviour and development can be detected at an early age. Our expert says that signs of autism can be visible around 12 months, but a diagnosis after 24 months can be considered more reliable. The diagnosis of ASD is usually based on two steps — developmental screening and comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. The former is a short test to identify if children are learning basic skills as per usual or if they’re having delays. The latter is a thorough review which may include looking at the child’s behaviour and development, as well as involve hearing and vision screening, genetic tests, neurological testing, and other medical testing.
10. Interaction With Other Individuals With Autism Helps
Autistic children have a hard time socialising with people. They need help in learning how to cope with an environment that is out of sync with their abilities and challenges. This also effects their progress. But when surrounded by alike individuals, they may develop better social skills. According To Isma, autistic children thrive best with 1:1 ABA therapy initially, but exposure to other individuals helps a lot too.