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UNDERSTANDING THE AUTISTIC CHILD

By Kumari Wickremaratne, Associate Director and in-house psychologist for the Children’s Resource Centre and the Chitra Lane School for the Special Child. This article originally appeared in the 2000 in Issue 2 of Senehasa Magazine.



Dr. Leo Kanner, an American psychiatrist, first described autism as a distinct syndrome in 1943. This life-long disability which affects social interaction and communication, as well as cognitive ability, usually appears when children are between two and five years old and affects approximately five children in every 10,000. It is four times as likely to occur in boys as in girls and it has been found throughout the world in children of all ethnic and social backgrounds.

Autism is sometimes referred to as having a “spectrum” of conditions ranging from very mild to severe. Thus children with autism display a great range of intellectual functioning, with about 60% having an IQ below 50. Children with the mildest forms of autism are often barely distinguishable from children not on the autism spectrum, and are frequently able to function in a mainstream classroom with minimal support. On the other end of the spectrum, children may display severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Approximately a third of cases will have at least one epileptic fit before adulthood.



Causes

There is no medical consensus on the causes of autism, and many doctors believe that multiple factors may play a role in the development of autism in different children. Autism is now thought to be an organic disease of the brain and not a psychological disorder.

Some researchers have found abnormalities in the brain structure and function of individuals with autism that may be the result of certain types of infections during early infancy. Illnesses in the mother or chemical exposure during pregnancy may also turn out to be linked to later autism.

Other researchers have found biochemical imbalances in autistic children and there is even evidence of genetic predisposition in some cases of autism.



Characteristics

There is no cut-and-dried medical test to diagnose autism. Diagnosis is based on observing behavior, usually by 30 months of age. Some common features of this syndrome are given below. It should be noted, however, that all these characteristics need not be present for a diagnosis of autism.

  • The child is not “cuddly” and may be indifferent or even dislike physical contact and affection.

  • Is aloof and makes little or no attempt to communicate or engage with his or her surroundings or with other people, including parents and other children.

  • Rarely or never makes eye contact—looks away from or past other people.

  • May be either hyperactive (over-responsive to stimuli) or hypoactive (under-responsive to stimuli).

  • May act deaf despite no medical evidence of hearing loss, or otherwise not respond appropriately to sounds.

  • Has an unusual or obsessive attachment to or use of certain objects, such as spinning any object he or she comes in contact with or tearing paper.

  • Displays self-stimulating repetitive movements such as rocking, hand flapping or finger-licking.

  • Is resistant to change of any kind in his or her environment or routine.

  • Lacks fear of real dangers like fire or the sea.

  • May display a total lack of language or difficulties with both receptive and expressive language.

  • May display inappropriate emotional behavior such as giggling, crying or aggression for no apparent reason.



Early Intervention

There is no known cure for autism. Some medications, such as anti-depressants and anti-seizure drugs, have been shown to help in some cases. Dietary restrictions and behavioral therapy have also been used to control symptoms in some individuals with autism. Thus, treatment should concentrate on employing special methods of education both at home and at school, in the following areas:

  • Developing eye contact

  • Encouraging interaction with others

  • Teaching self-help skills

  • Discouraging repetitive behaviors whilst encouraging constructive behaviors

  • Developing communication skills

It is vital that autistic children receive the necessary interventions as early in like as possible in order to achieve his or her highest potential.