Autism Don’t judge! Aim to un­der­stand

Autis­tic chil­dren don’t de­lib­er­ately mis­be­have; they just pre­fer their own in­ner world, says Sr Burgie Ire­land

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

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”. This is the def­i­ni­tion on the web­site www.autism­southafrica.org. 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 so­cial­is­ing 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 be­hav­iour such as head-bang­ing or iso­la­tion.

The un­usual be­hav­iour of autis­tic chil­dren seems to be at its worst dur­ing preschool years. They don’t play with other chil­dren and in­sist on 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 the 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 a low self-es­teem, but for the autis­tic teen, this can be so over­whelm­ing that their so­cial skills and be­hav­iour 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 spe­cial­is­ing 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 RECOG­NISED?

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 a 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

WHEN THE AUTIS­TIC CHILD IS OVER­WHELMED, HE WILL RE­VERT TO COP­ING MECH­A­NISMS LIKE REPET­I­TIVE BE­HAV­IOUR SUCH AS HEAD-BANG­ING OR ISO­LA­TION

is recog­nised, the bet­ter the out­come. Mak­ing a di­ag­no­sis is like of­fer­ing sign posts 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 to 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 so­cialise, com­mu­ni­cate and think for him­self. He prefers rou­tine, hates change, has a limited range of in­ter­ests and cringes with sen­sory stim­uli. Par­ents, teachers, peers and sib­lings have to learn to ac­cept this, tone down their expectations and learn to tol­er­ate the be­hav­iour. 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 an­a­lyse, judge or try to change him. They ac­cept Shel­don for who he is and work around his idio­syn­cra­sies in a hu­mor­ous, non-hu­mil­i­at­ing way.

HELP­ING THE AUTIS­TIC CHILD PAR­ENTS

✓ Find out as much as you can about autism ✓ Look for re­sources to help you ✓ Find a sup­port group ✓ Teach your fam­ily about autism and how to un­der­stand your child ✓ Help your child through dif­fi­cult days; cel­e­brate achieve­ments. Think of autism as a chal­lenge – not a tragedy!

TEACHERS

✓ Teach­ing meth­ods should fo­cus on the child’s strengths, not their weak­nesses ✓ Autis­tic chil­dren learn bet­ter with vis­ual aids and rep­e­ti­tion

WHAT SEEMS TO BE PER­FECTLY NOR­MAL TO HIM IS VERY DIF­FER­ENT TO WHAT SO­CI­ETY CON­SID­ERS AC­CEPT­ABLE

✓ In­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour is a sig­nal that the child is not cop­ing ✓ Min­imise stress and pre­pare the autis­tic child for out­ings and changes ✓ Autis­tic chil­dren take longer to learn. This takes per­sis­tence, pa­tience and per­se­ver­ance. YB

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