Understanding Autism

Unlike 10 years ago, today we are hearing the word Autism more often. In my Professional experience, Autistic children are the most interesting and complicated people to handle and train as each autistic child is different. Before we use the word Autism liberally we need to understand what is Autism. Diagnosing a child as autistic is a shocking and life changing event for the family especially the parents. The first and foremost understanding we need to have is Autistic children have a completely different way of looking at society and people.

Autism is a brain disorder that typically affects a person’s ability to communicate, form relationships with others, and respond appropriately to the environment and society. Some people with autism are relatively high-functioning, with speech and intelligence intact. Others are mentally retarded, mute, or have serious language delays. For some, autism makes them seem closed off and shut down; others seem locked into repetitive behaviours and rigid patterns of thinking. Due to the huge variation , Autism is now called as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD.

Although people with autism do not have exactly the same symptoms and deficits, they tend to share certain social, communication, motor, and sensory problems that affect their behavior in predictable ways.
From the start, most infants are social beings. Early in life, they gaze at people, turn toward voices, endearingly grasp a finger, and even smile.
In contrast, most children with autism seem to have tremendous difficulty learning to engage in the give-and-take of everyday human interaction. Even in the first few months of life, many do not interact and they avoid eye contact. They seem to prefer being alone. They may resist attention and affection or passively accept hugs and cuddling. Later, they seldom seek comfort or respond to anger or affection. Unlike other children, they rarely become upset when the parent leaves or show pleasure when the parent returns. Parents who looked forward to the joys of cuddling, teaching, and playing with their child may feel crushed by this lack of response.

Children with autism also take longer to learn to interpret what others are thinking and feeling. Subtle social cues-whether a smile, a wink, or a grimace-may have little meaning. To a child who misses these cues, “Come here,” always means the same thing, whether the speaker is smiling and extending her arms for a hug or squinting and planting her fists on her hips. Without the ability to interpret gestures and facial expressions, the social world may seem bewildering.

To compound the problem, people with autism have problems seeing things from another person’s perspective. Most 5-year-olds understand that other people have different information, feelings, and goals than they have. A person with autism may lack such understanding. This inability leaves them unable to predict or understand other people’s actions.

Although children with autism usually appear physically normal and have good muscle control, odd repetitive motions may set them off from other children. A child might spend hours repeatedly flicking or flapping her fingers or rocking back and forth. Many flail their arms or walk on their toes. Some suddenly freeze in position. Experts call such behaviors stereotypes or self-stimulation.
Some people with autism also tend to repeat certain actions over and over. A child might spend hours lining up blocks or beads or run from room to room turning lights on and off.

Some children with autism develop troublesome fixations with specific objects, which can lead to unhealthy or dangerous behaviors. For example, a child can have a fixation for wearing only one pair of T-shirt for the rest of his life without washing, Other behaviors are simply startling, humorous, or embarrassing to those around them. One girl, obsessed with digital watches, grabs the arms of strangers to look at their wrists.
People with autism demand consistency in their environment. Many insist on eating the same foods, at the same time, sitting at precisely the same place at the table every day. They may get furious if a picture is tilted on the wall, or wildly upset if their toothbrush has been moved even slightly. A minor change in their routine, like taking a different route to school, may be tremendously upsetting.

Scientists are exploring several possible explanations for such repetitive, obsessive behavior. Perhaps the order and sameness lends some stability in a world of sensory confusion. Perhaps focused behaviors help them to block out painful stimuli. Yet another theory is that these behaviors are linked to the senses that work well or poorly. A child who sniffs everything in sight may be using a stable sense of smell to explore his environment. Or perhaps the reverse is true: he may be trying to stimulate a sense that is dim.
Imaginative play, too, is limited by these repetitive behaviors and obsessions. Most children, as early as age 2, use their imagination to pretend. They create new uses for an object, perhaps using a bowl for a hat. Or they pretend to be someone else, like a mother cooking dinner for her “family” of dolls. In contrast, children with autism rarely pretend. Rather than rocking a doll or rolling a toy car, they may simply hold it, smell it, or spin it for hours on end.
Unusual abilities

Some people with autism display remarkable abilities. This is true only for 10% of the cases. A few demonstrate skills far out of the ordinary. At a young age, when other children are drawing straight lines and scribbling, some children with autism are able to draw detailed, realistic pictures in three-dimensional perspective. Some toddlers who are autistic are so visually skilled that they can put complex jigsaw puzzles together. Many begin to read exceptionally early-sometimes even before they begin to speak. Some who have a keenly developed sense of hearing can play musical instruments they have never been taught, play a song accurately after hearing it once, or name any note they hear.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

The specialist makes a diagnosis of autism only if there is clear evidence of deficiency in the following areas.
Behavioural: inappropriate social interaction, poor eye contact, compulsive behaviour, impulsivity, repetitive movements, self-harm, or persistent repetition of words or actions.

Developmental: learning disability or speech delay in a child
Muscular: poor coordination or tic
Cognitive: intense interest in a limited number of things or problem paying attention
Psychological: unaware of others’ emotions or depression
Speech: speech disorder or abnormal tone of voice

Understanding a child with Autism and training involves skilled techniques and processes which requires life long commitment. This is a small attempt in creating awareness about a different world.