By Vihan Sanyal
A diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), also known as Autism, is made when there are impairments in communication, social interaction with others and with repetitive behaviour and interests before the age of three years.
ASD is seen to occur more often in boys than in girls. The exact cause of autism and the other ASDs is still not known. Studies indicate that autism is heritable. A lifelong and chronic disorder, it’s treatable but not curable by modern medicine. The severity of symptoms varies significantly among children with ASD.
A child with autism likes predictability. They like to follow routines and they dislike surprises. Many children with ASD don’t like to be touched or hugged without prior intimation. Children with ASD have a strong desire to make friends, however, they find it difficult due so due to their lack of social skills. For instance, they may not know how to react to a friendly “hi” from another child and may act abnormally to the situation.
A person with autism usually finds sudden loud noises unbearable. The same can happen with certain smells, room temperature and with lighting. The higher the severity of the autism, the more affected are a person’s speaking skills. Many children with an ASD do not speak at all.
Every autistic person is unique. A child with autism feels emotions like love, happiness, pain and sadness just like the rest of us, though some may not be able to express such feelings and emotions like others. If a person with autism is pre-informed of changes or events prior to them occurring, then they are likely to cope with the situation in a much better way.
A FEW SYMPTOMS OF ASD
Difficulty making eye contact.
Difficulty instinctively empathising with others.
Difficulty starting or maintaining a conversation.
Difficulty expressing emotions or feelings.
Children with ASD may have an inability to recognise faces, a condition known as Prosopagnosia.
Children with ASD typically have an inability to process sensory information (known as Agnosia).
People with autism often have obsessions.
INDICATORS OF ASD ACCORDING TO AGE GROUPS
Absence of response to others’ expressions or gestures.
Inability of using imagination during play.
Requires guidance and will not initiate play or activity with others.
Inability to socially interact with others.
Unusual hand gestures.
Love for routine. Finds change overwhelming.
Repetitive actions with toys during play (such positioning toys in a certain way, constantly pressing buttons or triggers of a toy gun).
Abnormalities in development of language skills.
Repeating words and or sentences.
May speak more like an adult in a cold tone of voice.
Inability to cope with group activities and sports (may be hostile and aggressive).
Become non-compliant to instructions given by the teacher in a classroom setting.
Inability to show respect or emotions towards the teacher and other children.
Inability to use imagination.
Behave in an odd manner in situations.
Find it challenging to cope with change in routine.
HOW TO HELP AN AUTISTIC CHILD
Here is a simple list of things a person or caregiver can do to help make life easier for a child with ASD:
INFORMATION PROCESSING TIME
Every child with ASD has their own speed of processing information. It is important for caregivers to match the pace of the child and communicate accordingly.
VISUAL & AUDITORY DATA
Children with ASD have acute and sensitive visual and auditory ability. An autistic child may be able to hear a magnified version of a particular sound at home or in the classroom and this often acts as a trigger for meltdowns as they are unable to cope with the constant light or sound. It is difficult for the uninitiated to know why an autistic child is behaving in a certain way. Providing such children with noise-cancelling headphones, allowing them to wear sunglasses and changing light bulbs to non-fluorescent lights will help make the child’s environment at home and classroom autistic-friendly.
USING REPETITIVE WORDS
Autistic children often repeat words and phrases this is known as Echolalia. At times, this behaviour is reassuring and a form of self-comfort for the autistic child. Allow the child to fully experience and express this process instead of redirecting their attention to something else.
NEED FOR DOWNTIME
Autistic persons can become easily perturbed and overwhelmed by their environment and the demands of the world. Children with ASD require space in order to process and cope with their environmental demands. Allow children with ASD to take the time to unwind in the way they wish to.
Many autistic children suffer from face blindness and may find it challenging to recognise people. It is best to educate friends and family members to say “Hi this is…..” when they approach an autistic person. It may also help to teach autistic children to recognise people with the person’s traits, such as by the person’s fragrance, tone of voice, mannerism, etc.
CREATE A COMFORT ZONE
Recognise what environment the child feels comfortable in and allow their room to be the way they would like it. It’s best not to make changes to lighting, furniture, toys, etc. Let them arrange things the way they want them to be.
TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR PERSONS WITH ASD
Several groups of medications like atypical anti-psychotics and mood stabilisers are used to treat behavioral problems such as temper tantrums and aggression associated with ASD.
Behavioural therapy has been found to be most helpful in treating children with ASD. Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) and Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) focus on language development, social skills and appropriate behaviours. These are all supportive and skill building forms of therapy designed to help children with ASD.
Mindfulness also offers supportive treatment options for children with ASD. If practiced regularly, it can help a child cope better with the unwanted symptoms of ASD.
(The writer is a psychotherapist.)