Awareness about autism

Autism

It was during one of our family get-togethers, when I noticed that something about Nelly was not right. I happen to have been assigned the duty of taking care of the kids when it struck me that Nelly, my two year old nephew, was so different from the other kids: while other kids of the same age jumped around playing excitedly, Nelly was drawn in a corner, all by himself; playing with his cars and clearly disinterested in other children. There was this particular car that he kept spinning and could not let go of. What is more surprising is that Nelly had not started talking which was in stark contrast with his peers, his way of communication was a repetition of words he probably heard others say. On contacting his parents, it further emerged that Nelly had a knack for throwing tantrums at the slightest change of his routine. These strange signs prompted us to visit the doctor who confirmed our worst fears; Nelly was suffering from autism, one of the development disorders under the “autism spectrum”.

What is Autism?

Autism is a complex brain development disorder characterized by communication problems, difficulty relating, unusual obsession with toys and objects of interest, difficulty adjusting to changes in routine and repetitive patterns of behavior. It is the fastest growing serious developmental disorder in the United States. Initially it was in a distinct subtype together with; asperger syndrome, rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) but with the publication of the May 2013 DSM-5 diagnostic manual it came under an umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Each of these disorders affects a child’s ability to communicate and relate with others. Asperger syndrome does not cause significant language impairments as compared to autism and is as a result referred to as a “high functioning autism”.

Symptoms

Autistic symptoms centre around three major areas; communication, social interaction and behavior. Communicative symptoms constitute a delay in language and cognitive development, usually evident at about three years of age. Pertaining to social interaction, autistic children are not able to develop and maintain relationships with peers in the same level of development. They also exhibit a repetitive preoccupation with an area of interest in a manner that is abnormal in intensity and concentration. The symptoms can range from mild to severe; some autistic persons do not talk at all or use language with repeated conversations and phrases while those with better language skills have difficulty understanding complex concepts. They also exhibit unusual reaction to sensory information such as loud noises and bright lights.

Causes and remedies

There is no one cause for autism, though research point to the fact that most cases of autism appear to be caused by a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development. According to research, events before and during birth such us maternal illness during pregnancy, birth complications particularly those depriving the baby’s brain of oxygen and advanced parental age at the time of conception coupled with autism risk genes predisposes a child to autism. Autism has no cure, usually intensive behavioral interventions are used as effective treatments to improve the outlook of the child. The earlier a child enrolls in these behavioral programs, the better the outcome. Certain unproved remedies sought by patients include high dose vitamins, chelation therapy and hyberbaric oxygen.

Diagnosis

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) traverses economic, cultural and racial boundaries, it is found across the world. Studies show that autism is more common in boys than girls, occurring with a 4:1 ratio of boys: girls. According to the US centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 88 American children in the United States is affected by autism, a tenfold increase in prevalence in 40 years. However, these fears of a rise in ASD cases have been subject to debate with experts questioning whether it is an actual rise or simply an increase in awareness and diagnosis. An estimated 1 out of 54 boys and 1 out of 254 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.

Mustering to cope with your autistic child can be a daunting task especially when one lacks prior knowledge on how to handle them. Parents need to arm themselves with the following tips; increase their knowledge on autism spectrum disorders, the more knowledgeable you are about your child’s disorder the more of use you can be. Learn what is likely to upset your child and minimize on them, strive to bring out a positive response from them. Behavior, communication and social skills can be of great importance to an autistic child therefore maintaining a solid and loving approach in caring for them will help, above all keep in touch with the professionals and experts to better understand your child’s needs and abilities. The process could be tough but patience is of utmost importance, it will surely get better.

Teachers too have a role to play. Students with autism usually have difficulty interpreting body language and tone therefore the teacher will have to be clear in his/her instructions to them. The teachers also need to tap into the students’ strengths and emphasize on them, maintain consistent routines and schedules and brief them in prior in case of a change of plans. The teachers should keep in touch with the expert and professionals in order to understand the meanings of their actions and most importantly they should develop a positive and a unified attitude towards helping the students. Some autistic children given early intervention and intensive help from parents, teachers and therapists may ultimately lead near normal lives.

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Indeed autism severely impairs one’s behavior and social life, but on the flip side, it creates a bond in the family, it brings the family closer. The siblings of an autistic child are likely to be more caring and supportive of other people living with disabilities due to their experiences. Additionally, about 40% of people living with autism have above average intellectual skills and exceptional visual, music and academics abilities. Notable examples of prominent personalities with autistic tendencies include the author of US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, concert pianist Glenn Gould and composers Beethoven and Mozart. Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein both exhibited what is now associated with Asperger’s syndrome. Albert is said to have been a loner and a late speaker as a child, when he grew up he became so obsessed with physics that he could behave like he was oblivious to his surroundings and even his own physical appearance. These examples show what meaningful feats autistic children can achieve given the support, encouragement and understanding they need to take full advantage of their unique gifts.

Whichever way you look at it autism is with us and it takes awareness and early diagnosis to help the victims. Several organizations have come up to champion this cause, notable examples include the Autism Society of America, Autism Speaks, OASIS @ MAPP just to mention but a few. All we need to do is play our parts, be supportive, be respectful, be understanding.

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