Why should I be aware of this?
Typically, kids with autism even find it difficult to communicate the way other kids do. They usually keep to themselves as they struggle to use words to express. Normal sounds may bother them. A gentle touch may make them uncomfortable. They may not even be able to connect a smile with a state of happiness.
Usually lasts a lifetime
Autism usually lasts throughout a person's lifetime. It is a complex neurobiological disorder which today affects, 1 in 150 individuals, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. The last 15 years have seen tremendous rise in the number of autism patients in the industrialized nations, with the sharpest rise seen in the US and UK.
Some autism patients display certain unusual skills. Certain children are known to draw realistic pictures in three-dimensional perspectives at an age when other children can barely draw lines. Others can put complex jigsaw puzzles together even from the time they are toddlers. Though they may not be able to speak properly, many begin to read well much earlier than normal.
There are cases of some children playing musical instruments though they have not been taught, or sing a song accurately after hearing it once.
All about Autism
Autism is part of a group of disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) which can usually be reliably diagnosed by age 3. New research, however, puts the age to as early as 6 months. Infants with autism symptoms will not display behavior typical of their age, like endearingly grasping a finger, turning and gazing, responding to sound etc. They may even resist affection and attention.
Interpret language literally
Kids with autism interpret language literally. A phrase like “pouring cats and dogs,” instead of “it’s raining very hard” can make them see pets coming out of a pitcher. The fluorescent light is not only too bright for them, it also buzzes and hums.
Shows in a person’s behavior
Autism shows in a person’s behavior. A person with autism is almost oblivious to social nuances. He may not wait patiently in a line. He may talk above an appropriate volume. He may not respect others’ personal space. He may draw unwanted attention by his hand-flapping, screaming and tantrums.
Autism is four times more likely to affect boys than girls and is diagnosed among all racial, ethnic, and social groups.
No single diagnostic test
It is not possible to detect autism at birth or through any prenatal screening. But research has confirmed that if you have one child with autism, there is a 10% chance of having another child with autism or a similar disorder. As there is no single diagnostic test for autism, different tests are carried to rule out other problems and come to a conclusion about autism. During diagnosis stage it may be necessary to refer to a developmental pediatrician, a pediatric psychiatrist, or a pediatric neurologist.
Causes and cure
Researchers have not been able to establish the cause of the disease. And treatments are also unknown. Different studies suggest the cause as genetic, exposure to a virus before birth or a problem with the immune system.
Drugs don’t help much in the treatment of autism, though antipsychotic drugs, lithium, and beta-blockers may be required to control instances of violence. The child with autism is likely to display his frustration through self-injurious behaviors, aggression, or tantrums that threaten the safety of others. Appropriate education measures under the care of a child and adolescent psychiatrist can help control the disease to some extent.
Autism and diet
Specialized diet is one of the least recognized ways of dealing with autism. Some parents have reported a strong connection between diet and autism and there is a growing body of research in support of this.
Research has found that gluten and casein affect children with autism as some autistic people may have difficulty processing these two proteins. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and oats, and casein is a type of milk protein. The breakdown of these foods in the body causes opiates to be produced, which addict some autism patients to food containing gluten and casein and affect their behavior.
In view of this researchers have recommended gluten and casein free diet for those with autism. There are reports of children making improvements after change of their diet. However, it is not easy to follow a gluten and casein free diet, because often they are not clearly mentioned on the labels. A nutritionist can suggest a healthy diet which can reduce the symptoms of autism.
What can I do?
For parents autism is a particularly tough condition to deal with. They are deprived of the joy of cuddling, teaching or playing with their children because of their lack of response.
Parents of children with autism have to play multiple roles of teacher, advocate, loving parent, and family member. They must find a suitable program and services for their child. Parents need to develop specialized knowledge so that they can teach their children at home what they are taught at school. They should develop special coping skills to deal with the stress of bringing up a child with autism. In their role as advocates for their children, they need to have knowledge of special education law and the available services.
Parents are usually correct in noticing abnormal behavior in their children. Pediatricians are likely to dismiss early signs as normal developmental problems. This could turn risky. The moment you have concerns about your child insist on having him screened for autism.
Diagnosis of autism is purely based on the child's behavior as there is no definitive brain scan or blood test. Keep a watch and observe if your child is showing any of the following signs:
- Not displaying normal eye contact, facial expression, and gestures
- Unable to develop peer relationships
- Unable to enjoy, share interests or achievements with others
- Not able to reciprocate emotionally
- Does not cuddle or respond to affection and touching
- Does not show a preference for parents over other adults
- Delays learning or fails to learn the spoken language
- Unable to hold sustained conversation, though possessing speech ability
- Becomes repetitive in words or action
- Avoids imitative or make-belief play
Atypical activities or interests
- Shows obsessive preoccupation with some particular interests
- Compulsively follows unimportant routines
- Repetitive mannerisms
- May find odd objects like a piece of paper fascinating
- Finds great interest in moving objects, like a fan
A study by Australia's, Macquarie University Department of Psychology suggested that siblings of children with autism can feel lonely and neglected, but at the same time some of the siblings display higher maturity and better social skills. Other siblings tend to display other behavior problems, including acting out, aggressive behavior and disobedience.
As the main role of bringing up the child falls on the mother, she feels additional emotional stress. This can not only affect relationship between parents but also performance at work.
Yet there is a future
Having autism is like living in a foreign country, or learning the rules of a very different game. The rules can be learnt and the children can grow up to be just like you and me.
Ongoing research is hopeful of finding a solution to the problem. There are also enough therapies – speech, occupational etc to ensure that autism need not be a death sentence on your child.
Like all problems, here too there is a need to plan. There is no reason to believe that the task is too overwhelming to plan. Many new methods and strategies to teach children with autism have been developed. They include Applied Behavior Analysis, Discrete Trial Instruction, Picture Exchange Communication System, TEACCH, Floortime, RDI, Social Stories, and Sensory Integration. They all help in the long run in reducing family stress and enhancing the family’s quality of life.
We can take heart from the fact that in the eight years between 1991-92 and 2000 there has been a 1354 percent increase in number of students enrolling in US schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2002 report to Congress.
More on Autism
What can I do to help
- What is Autism? An Overview
- Autism's effects on the brain
- Coping with autism-support for families
- Visit Help Autism Now Society and watch instructional video and refer to physician’s handbook, among other items.
- For speacial education refer to Screening and Diagnosing Children With Autism
- You can get a copy of the book Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism by Jenny McCarthy about her child with autism. You will find the possibilities are broader than you think.