Autism – Many must have heard about it, some may have read books or watched movies about it, some may have heard about it in conversation, while it may be a completely new term for others.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autism (broadly) is a developmental and neurological disorder that affects interaction, communication, learning and social behaviour.
It manifests in the early years of life and children who are affected with autism are sometimes 'different' in their behavior.
Often, especially after 2 - 3 years of age, parents may notice one or more of these signs in their children:
Limited eye contact
Restricted areas of interest
Lack of interest in playing with other children in their age group
Delayed speech and learning
Either one or many of these signs may be present in children with autism.
Once parents learn that their child has autism, the diagnostic label brings with it several apprehensions and fears.
It can be intimidating, and one might find it difficult to understand whom to reach out to for help.
Primarily, it is either the paediatrician, school or just parental antennae that notices that the child may be showing signs of developmental delay or autism spectrum disorder.
Thereafter, they usually reach out to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist for guidance. After which a series of developmental assessments is done.
However, the ever-changing criterion of diagnostic labels can often lead to confusion.
Parents are often scared of the 'difference' in their children, and can get confused about which sources to seek help from.
Added to that is the fact that there are NO 'easy medicines' to immediately fix the condition.
There are several myths and misinformation related to this condition that can lead to the drainage of financial and social resources.
Amidst all this chaos, here are a few things which can help in coping better if your child has autism:
Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial for children with autism. Research has shown that the earlier we intervene, the greater the outcomes for children with autism.
Early intervention programs may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behaviour analysis (ABA), and other evidence-based therapies tailored to your child's needs.
Parents sometimes end up giving an arm and a leg for certain therapies. It is important for them to be aware of primary and secondary therapies for autism.
It is important to educate oneself about autism. The involvement of parents, teachers, special educators and other key caregivers are vital, and the efforts need to be sustained.
Taking an Individualized Approach
As per medical classification, ASD is a spectrum, and most parents are left wondering the degree of autism their child has.
Some wonder whether their child have it at all. We should understand that each child with autism may have a unique combination of strengths and challenges.
Autism is NOT a binary concept. What works for one child with autism may not work for another
As mentioned before, what we need to do depends on which areas the child is facing difficulties in (ex: learning, speaking, communicating, etc.).
Therefore, it's crucial to work with a team of professionals, including paediatricians, psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and special educators, to develop an individualized plan that considers your child's specific needs, strengths, and challenges.
Regular assessments and adjustments to the intervention plan may be needed as your child grows and develops. And remember, age is often the best healer.
Many issues with behavior and speech may slowly improve in some children as they grow older.
Many children with autism may have difficulty with communication, ranging from delayed speech to non-verbal communication.
It's important to explore and implement various communication strategies that may work for your child.
For example, visual supports such as visual schedules, social stories, and visual cues can help with understanding and following routines.
Working with a speech therapist can help in developing effective communication strategies tailored to your child's needs.
At times, playing, painting, storytelling, colour choices, role modelling by parents help.
We need to understand that the ways of communication by children are different and rather than constantly trying to 'normalise' them, they can just be modified to suit their social needs.
Social Skills Development
Social skills can be challenging for children with autism. They usually struggle with understanding social cues, interpreting emotions, or engaging in reciprocal interactions.
Social skills training is a good way to support your child. It can be beneficial in teaching your child appropriate social behaviours, such as greetings, turn-taking, sharing, and understanding emotions.
Social stories, which are visual narratives that explain social situations, can help your child better understand social expectations.
Personal safety, sexual hygiene, and self-identity skills provide protection from abuse.
Role-playing and practice in real-life situations can also be useful in building social skills. Collaborating with a social skills group or a behavioural therapist can provide structured guidance in this area.
Sensory Sensitivities and Behaviour Issues
Many children with autism may have sensory sensitivities, which can manifest as over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sensory input, such as light, sound, touch, taste, or smell.
These sensitivities can cause discomfort or distress for your child. The child may exhibit behaviours that help them to cope with the sensory overload.
Identifying and understanding your child's sensory sensitivities and providing appropriate accommodations can help reduce their anxiety and improve their comfort.
They should never be forced to adjust, and their choices respected. Learning and social skills development occurs faster in conducive environments.
At times, there can be behaviour issues in some children with autism. These include (but are not limited to) screaming, extreme stranger anxiety, sleeplessness, mirror gazing, repetitive body movements, self-talking, agitation, easy irritability, frequent mood swings and restlessness.
Other mental health conditions like ADHD, depression, social anxiety disorder, learning disorder, etc. can also be seen with autism.
In such cases, medicines are of help in addition to psychological therapies.
Please consult your doctor at the earliest if your child has been having any of these issues.
Advocacy and Support
Advocating for your child with autism and ensuring they have access to appropriate services, accommodations, and support is important.
This may include advocating for your child's rights in the school system, seeking out supportive resources and services in your community, and connecting with other parents of children with autism for emotional support and shared experiences.
Autism organizations, support groups, and online communities can provide valuable resources and support for you as a parent, as well as for your child.
Parenting a child with autism can be challenging and demanding, and it's important to prioritize self-care.
Taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally is crucial to ensure you have the energy, patience, and resilience to effectively support your child.
The diagnosis should not isolate you instead it's important to seek help from family and friends. Caregivers form the core of the care-chain for children with autism. Hence, if you take care of yourselves, your child will be much better.
Every child with autism has their own set of unique strengths that can be harnessed if detected early and managed timely.
We need to see them with a 'rights-and-strengths' based approach rather than a 'deficit-based' lens. That changes the narrative, reduces the fear and helps parents and caregivers to be more involved in the child’s care and future.
This World Autism Month, let’s stand in support of what the United Nations stated, “Appropriate support, accommodation and acceptance of autism allows these children to enjoy equal opportunity and full and effective participation in society.”
(Snehasree Neogy, is a practising Clinical Psychologist, at Apollo Multispecialty Hospitals (AMHL) in Kolkata)