Autism Spectrum Disorder

Most of us identify autism with the very few extreme cases we come across in our lives. In such cases, the child is too behaviourally paralysed to live life the “normal” way, and the signs or symptoms are visibly evident. Our hearts reach out for these children and at the same time we feel relieved that ours do not have it. However, here’s the mistake that most of us are committing as parents, teachers or anybody who deals with kids of very young age.

Since our notions of Autism have been clouded by these very extreme cases, we fail to recognise and give proper attention to the milder forms of autism that our kids struggle with every day. Autism does not get into the way of their everyday life in forms that are noticeable to the eye, and therefore remain undiagnosed and untreated. However, the internal struggles of people belonging anywhere on the spectrum of Autism is manifold. For all you know, traits of your child that you have been seeing as usual behaviour may be signs of autism that you are unknowingly ignoring. 

Understanding Autism and ASD:

Autism is a developmental disability that impairs a person’s ability to interpret and interact with the outside world. It can vary in symptoms and severity and hence forms a spectrum of disabilities ranging from mild communication problems to severe cases causing complete withdrawal from society. 

It can manifest in ways where a person avoids physical contact and retreats in their shell, have difficulty in speech, forming sentences or pronouncing words, have poor eye contact, lack facial expression, speak in a tone or rhythm and have difficulty in voice modulation, have difficulty identifying non-verbal clues, difficulty starting a conversation or to keep it going- to name a few. 

Physical symptoms or patterns of behaviour might include repetitive bodily movements like rocking, -self-harming activity like head banging, very short attention-span, difficulty in coordinating movement leading to clumsiness etc. 

What can parents do:

In most cases, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is only diagnosed once individuals enter adult age. It is difficult to diagnose at an earlier stage because babies do not follow a set timeline of development and develop at their own pace. Hence, only extreme cases of autism are identified at an early stage where symptoms are too evident. 

However, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has launched a “Learn the signs. Act Early” program to help parents monitor development and keep an eye on developmental milestones for children. The program aims at monitoring, screening, evaluating and diagnosing children with ASD at the earliest to provide full assistance and support to those suffering from autism. 

Steps in the process:

CDC has come up with a series of tests and screenings to be conducted at certain intervals to map a child’s development and to identify developmental disorders. 

Developmental monitoring-This is based on observation where your child’s growth and changes over time is observed and evaluated. Playing, learning, speaking, behaving and moving are used as samples to test if all milestones have been covered. A missed milestone could be a sign of an underlying problem. 

Developmental Screening- A more formal way of determining a child’s development, developmental screening is a set of formal tests, questionnaires and checklists. These screenings are suggested at three stages- 9 months, 18 months and 30 months of age. CDC also suggests screening separately for ASD at 18 months and 30 months. 

Comprehensive Developmental Evaluation-If a grey area arises in developmental monitoring and screening, a complete evaluation should be conducted to know the extent and severity of the concern. This is an in-depth evaluation done by a specialist like developmental paediatrician, child psychologist, therapist or other specialists trained in child development. These tests can certify if a child needs special attention and care. 

Autism might not be curable but living with autism can be made easy. Autism can also be prevented in certain ways. Premature birth, low birth weight, environmental factors, exposure to harmful radiation etc. can all lead to stunted development in the early years. Looking out for factors that can affect a child’s development is important, especially for the first couple of years. Identification at an early age can make a lot of difference in enabling a person with autism to lead a normal life.