Autism is not a disease, it is a deviation from the normal development of the human brain that results in the impairment of a child’s social skills, communication skills and cognition. These kids have reduced interest in surroundings or other children, and a tendency towards repetitive behaviours which can become normal or near normal if detected early and attended to appropriately.
Annually April 2 is observed as World Autism Awareness Day to raise awareness about autistic individuals all over the world. Simultaneously, to mark World Health Day 2023, OnlyMyHealth has organised a week-long campaign, "Health For All", where we will talk about various aspects of autism spectrum disorder.
In this article, we talked to Dr Suresh Kumar Panuganti, Lead Consultant-Pediatric Critical Care and Pediatrics, Yashoda Hospitals, Hyderabad, to learn about early signs of autism and the steps parents should take.
Also Read: World Autism Awareness Day: Embracing Neurodiversity & Creating Inclusive Spaces
How to Detect Autism Early?
Dr Kumar explains some points that can help parents detect autism early.
- Avoiding eye contact and looking away when the kid is looked at.
- The kid does not smile back or smiles very little as compared to other children of the same age.
- The kid prefers to be alone and not mingle with other children.
- The kid does not look at new things when pointed at and does not show interest or get excited seeing new objects.
- The kid does not point at things and not sharing with others
- Does not imitate actions.
- The kid does not respond to names consistently.
- The kid gives unusual responses to day-to-day noises like a grinder or cooker or vacuum cleaners.
According to Dr Kumar, on average, a child should respond to his or her name by eight to 10 months of age; if a child does not respond it could be because of hearing impairment, developmental delay, or early features of autism. After identifying this, parents should consult a paediatrician for further assessment.
Most children with autism tend to have repetitive behaviours, like preferring to have the same pattern of play, playing with the same toys, or being obsessed with a part of the toy. Though normal children also can have obsessions with things or toys, they fade away as the child grows in age while a kid with autism tends to have this symptom persistently.
How to Diagnose Autism?
There is no diagnostic laboratory test to confirm the diagnosis. Autism is a clinical diagnosis which can be associated with other comorbidities in some children and there are various screening methods for children with suspected autism.
Also Read: A Special Needs Mom Shares How Quality Of Life In Children With Autism Can Be Improved
Early Diagnosis & Its Impact
Recent trends show an increase in the number of children with autism, which may be partly due to increased awareness among parents who are the primary caregivers as well as treating paediatricians. Other possible (but not proven yet) reasons could be due to increasing nuclear families and ever-increasing screen time which reduces the chance of early socialisation with other kids. Previously diagnosis used to be as late as four to five years of age; but currently, most kids are being diagnosed as early as between 12 to 18 months due to increased awareness and resources.
The purpose of diagnosing early is dual fold. It permits children to begin rigorous therapy early in the hope that the severity of autism would reduce. Also, some children may outgrow the autism diagnosis later in life. Early diagnosis also allows these children to develop and enhance their skills to reach their full potential when the young brain has what is called “plasticity”, i.e., it can be moulded toward achieving a better outcome. Those who are diagnosed very late have a lesser chance of complete recovery or development of language and also have a higher chance of developing behavioural issues like hyperactivity, learning disturbances and sleep disorders.
Myth About the Vaccination and Autism
Dr Kumar said that there are a lot of myths about vaccines causing autism which originated in the West. There has been enough research which concluded there is no definitive cause-and-effect relation between vaccination and autism. In fact, vaccines are given to protect children from various life-threatening diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella. Measles is still one of the important causes of death in children under five years of age globally and especially in developing nations.
Also Read: Virtual Autism In Children: Expert Explains Symptoms, Causes, & Tips To Deal With It
How to Treat Autism and What are the Treatment Options?
Once the diagnosis is made, parents should be careful in choosing the therapeutic options. You should discuss this with your paediatrician and developmental paediatrician and follow their guidance. There is no “autism-specific intervention” since it is not one specific condition.
Occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), floor time, Treatment and Education of Autism and Related Communication-Handicapped Children (TEACCH), Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), and other therapies and intervention programmes are provided.
Many interventional models have been developed, including behavioural models (for example, ABA), structured teaching (for example, the TEACCH), developmental/relationship-based models (for example, floor time), and integrated programmes that use a combination of strategies within the treatment programme (e.g., social communication, emotional regulation, and transactional support).
A well-trained and experienced therapist administering "sensory integration therapy" to a kid with autism may be beneficial in early intervention.
Autism is not a disease to be cured; with therapies, one can reduce the deviation from normal and improve social and communication skills. Every parent should be aware of the options for children with autism. According to the Indian Constitution and the Rights of People with Disabilities Act 2016, there are various government initiatives and programmes available to people with autism and their families. A disability certificate is required to participate in these programmes.
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