Every year, 2nd April is marked as a day dedicated to spread awareness about a neurological disorder called autism. The resolution for World Autism Awareness Day was first proposed by Qatar and was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18th December 2007. With every passing year and every region across the globe embracing the importance of understanding autism better, this year the worldwide endeavour of mass awareness enters its eighth year. The day involves many international as well local organisations holding fund-raising events to spread awareness and lend a helping hand.
Autism is the world's third most common development disorder. Some of the latest studies suggest a sharp rise in global incidents of autism. According to the National Autistic Society, one in every 100 people suffers from autism which accounts to close to 700,000 autistic people in the U.K. Another statistical report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United States, says around 1 in every 68 American children suffers from autism. If we were to talk about India, close to 15 million people suffer from it at present.
What is Autism?
Autism can be categorised as a complex neurological disorder that involves a person having impaired social interaction, communication difficulties (verbal, non-verbal), learning difficulties as well as behavioural issues. Autism and other autistic disorders are bracketed under a category known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) depending on the intensity and varying degrees of the symptoms. These include childhood disintegrative disorder, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD-NOS).
Autism is associated with the brain's development and other functions tied around it. It affects the processing of information, development of skills and regulation of bodily actions and senses. The exact causes are still being researched upon; however, the condition is seen as a heritable one having associations with genetic mutations as well as other environmental factors. A few studies suggest that lack of proper oxygen supply to the fetus's developing brain may also trigger the condition. The symptoms may surface right during infancy or early childhood. The condition generally establishes itself once a child enters his/her second or third year and becomes prominent thereafter.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is the fact that every autistic person differs from one another and has his/her own idiosyncratic characteristics. In simpler words, an autistic child has a unique condition wherein the senses as well as the development of various skills are not in sync. This disparity may lead to a situation where a child may have rapidly developed cognitive skills while language, social or motor skills may lag behind or vice-versa. Some maybe excessively sensitive to noise, light or smell whereas some may find social interaction or communication quite challenging.
Apart from these there are a few more characteristics that are typical to autistic children:
Restricted behaviour - People with autism most often establish an affinity towards routine, finding it difficult to accept change. Their daily routine sees a lot of repetition in action, behaviour and speech. They tend to create a severely restricted area of interest and choose to cling to it. Autistics also develop an obsessive liking towards a particular object, pattern, task or thing. It could be anything spanning from a television show, a certain food item to a specific location, person, place and so on. At times this highly repetitive behaviour is expressed in bodily actions like repeated clapping, ticking, rocking, skin picking, self-poking, etc. that may also translate to self-injury.
Communication - An autistic child may show signs of difficulty in making sense of the world around. What may seem obvious, plain and simple to others may perplex them. Autism is characterised by social deficit or social aloofness triggered by social impairments. Autistics may find it difficult to understand and establish relationships with people and objects around. Impaired language, speech or cognitive skills further add much to the trouble. They often lack social or emotional reciprocity and experience difficulty in expressing oneself, understanding metaphors or associating symbols with language or vice-versa.
Being a Parent
Parenting an autistic child is a challenging task. Identifying symptoms at the earliest may help to some extent. Lack of gestural or verbal activity in newborns should be taken into account. If an infant shows no signs of babbling or gesturing by a year or finds it difficult to form words or phrases by the age of two, consult a paediatrician immediately.
There is no medical cure for autism; this makes the condition a lifetime ailment. Bringing up an autistic child requires a lot of mental and emotional courage, optimism, patience and of course, acceptance. Psychological, behavioural, speech and language therapy can help a great deal in the upbringing of an autistic child. Expose your child to a combination of therapies that not only focuses on behaviour but also on social and occupational skills. This can empower him/her, enabling a sense of self care and independence.
Ipshita Banerjee from The Autism Centre for Excellence, Gurgaon explained how autism is a condition that needs to be addressed and managed differently for different children. "Some children may exhibit highly aggressive behaviour, hence they need to be handled differently as compared to the others. There are personal, skill-based goals set for every child and is worked upon on a daily basis," she said. The Autism Centre for Excellence is a school that caters to the needs of autistic children and facilitates their overall development. "We follow Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) wherein every child has an individualised educational programme whick seeks to teach them a variety of skills including social, communication, self-help, academic, occupational and so on," she added.
According to Archana Nayar, Director and founder, The Autism Centre for Excellence, Gurgaon, ABA is one of the best and most widely used set of techniques to help treat autism. She also stressed on the importance of an early intervention, preferably by the time a child attains the age of two.
"The need of the hour is to have more such institutes as well as programmes that may facilitate one-on-one interactions between the therapist and the child. Mass awareness, greater sensitization and wider acceptance towards the condition is an absolute necessity, " she concluded.