If autism spectrum disorder were more widely understood and accepted, parents would be less reluctant to seek help.
By Dr Leena Khanzode
People sometimes fear what they don’t understand. This applies especially to mental health disorders that affect patterns of communication, speech and thought, which can be unsettling or even frightening to someone who isn’t familiar with these medical conditions.
In children, developmental disorders can affect communication and behaviour. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for example, is a developmental disorder that is marked by two unusual kinds of behaviours—deficits in communication and social skills, and restricted or repetitive behaviours. For example, a child with ASD may not seem sympathetic upon hearing sad news from someone they know. It’s common for a child on the spectrum to avoid eye contact with others and prefer to engage in solitary play of his choice. The social norms that guide our communication in everyday life don’t play the same role in the interactions of someone with ASD.
Those who are affected by autism spectrum disorder or other mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression or even Alzheimer’s disease are sadly often ignored or avoided because we feel we can’t relate to them or understand them. We mark them as different and try to limit our contact with them. This is what social stigma is, the designation of a person or group of people as being unusual and very much unlike us. And social stigma does far more than just set someone apart.
The social stigma attached to autism spectrum disorder makes it hard for the disorder to be identified and treated.
In a child’s early years, parents are keen to see their child interact with others. We watch for our child to smile back at a doting grandmother or respond when his or her name is called. We arrange play dates, so our child will learn how to socialise and make friends. When a child does not do these things that parents watch for, the anxiety and fear sets in. We don’t want our child to be different. We want our child to act like other kids who are his or her age. If our child is different, we certainly don’t want to draw attention to it. We decide to wait and see if he or she will grow out of it.
This wait-and-see approach delays the professional attention, diagnosis and early intervention that a child with ASD needs. Our fear of those we don’t understand and can’t communicate with leads parents to wait and hope that their child’s unusual behavior will eventually stop, rather than face the reality. It does the child a great disservice. Autism cannot be cured at the present time, but an early structured educational program and tailored therapy have been shown to help children develop skills they are lacking and have a much better quality of life.
If autism spectrum disorder were more widely understood and accepted, parents would be less reluctant to seek help. This would do a world of good for children on the spectrum. After all, a child with ASD is just wired differently.
(The writer is Clinical Advisor and Mentor, Mom’s Belief and Stanford Professor.)