WHAT IS AUTISM?

Autism, or ASD (autistic spectrum disorder, including subgroups like Asperger’s syndrome), is defined as a “lifelong, complex, pervasive developmental disability, which appears to have a genetic predisposition and stems from a multi-faceted origin, causing disturbances in brain development and functioning.”

But what does this look like in a child?

Autism is described as a “withinness” disability – which means children with autism prefer to live in their own world. They don’t enjoy socializing and become agitated and uncooperative when they’re out of their comfort zone and don’t want to do something. They seem to be indifferent to other people’s feelings and tell it like it is!

Because their senses are exaggerated, everyday sensations such as sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch can be intolerable. When the autistic child is overwhelmed, he will revert to coping mechanisms such as repetitive behavior such as head-banging or isolation.

The unusual behavior of autistic children seems to be at its worst during preschool years. They don’t play with other children and insist on the repetitive play. They’re hyperactive, and difficult to discipline. Between the age of six and twelve, there’s a period of progress for the autistic child, mostly because they’re usually able to talk and make themselves understood. These children are also learning social skills from their peers, and with patience and understanding, they’re learning to cooperate.

When a teenager goes through adolescence, hormonal changes can trigger different responses in the brain. The once hyperactive kid becomes a hypoactive and lethargic teenager. Teens are prone to depression with low self-esteem, but for autistic teens, this can be so overwhelming that their social skills and behavior regress. They can even become suicidal.

Autistic teenagers are also more at risk for epileptic seizures. These are usually complex partial seizures that begin in the frontal lobes of the brain – the part that undergoes major changes during adolescence.

During these turbulent years, family support, therapy, and medications can help to get the autistic teenager and family through this difficult time. According to Dr. Tony Attwood, a psychologist specializing in autism, “by their twenties, young adults with autism seem to come to terms with their disability and enjoy their work and special interests.”

HOW IS AUTISM RECOGNIZED?

Babies who will develop autism begin to show signs of “being different” in the first few months. They don’t make eye contact, smile, or show happiness. They don’t “mirror” facial expressions or mimic sounds. They squirm when held and don’t seem to need people. By their first birthday, toddlers should be babbling – but they’re not. Autistic toddlers don’t copy gestures like pointing and waving. Although they don’t have any speech or hearing impediments, they’re not joining words into short sentences by the time they’re two. Their social skills are poor, they don’t reach out to be comforted and don’t seem to respond to love.

Autism is currently diagnosed according to symptoms, but more recently researchers are turning to medical tests such as functional connectivity MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and blood tests to identify key metabolic markers in autistic children.

HOW CAN YOU BRING OUT THE BEST IN YOUR AUTISTIC CHILD?

First things first. Instinct tells parents that their child is different but it’s easy to shrug off unusual nuances as personality traits. Family and friends may agree that the child is “difficult” or slow, but will tell parents not to worry because he will catch up in time. But as with all conditions, the sooner autism is recognized, the better the outcome. Making a diagnosis is like offering signposts to help the autistic child and family cope with the syndrome. Therapy can teach him social skills and ultimately help him to uncover hidden talents and live a fulfilled life.

The autistic child can’t tell you what’s going on inside his head – what seems to be perfectly normal to him is very different from what society considers acceptable. Parents need to understand why the autistic child behaves in the way he does, coax him out of his inner world, and teach him how to live with himself and others.

The autistic child finds it difficult to socialize, communicate and think for himself. He prefers routine, hates change, has a limited range of interests, and cringes at sensory stimuli. Parents, teachers, peers, and siblings have to learn to accept this, tone down their expectations, and learn to tolerate the behavior. Think of Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. Here is a brilliant young man who is anti-social, belittling, and intolerant of others (even his friends), who hates change, and is fascinated by numbers, Dungeons & Dragons, and video games. In the series, Sheldon’s friends don’t analyze, judge, or try to change him. They accept Sheldon for who he is and work around his idiosyncrasies in a humorous, non-humiliating way.

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