Autism Don’t judge! Aim to understand
Autistic children don’t deliberately misbehave; they just prefer their own inner world, says Sr Burgie Ireland
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!
✓ 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