What is Autism ?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, or rather, a range of disorders which affects the ability of a person to communicate normally and to achieve normal social behaviour. Although it is basically a neurological disorder, it affects the development of the brain. A person suffering from autism may be equally intelligent as a normal person but he faces difficulty in social interaction and non-verbal communication. It is also characterized by restricted interest in surroundings and repetitive behaviour.
Causes of Autism :
Research is still on-going regarding the exact cause of autism. However, it remains a fact that Autism is basically has a genetic base. Some studies have shown that autism develops in the brain of the foetus at a very early stage due to disruption of normal brain activity and presence of abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters. Some environmental factors also affect the foetus to such an extent that they can be the cause for autism, such as, infectious diseases, heavy metals, pesticides, diesel fumes etc.
Symptoms of Autism :
Symptoms of Autism can be noticed in a child by the time he turns 3 years of age. Some of the common symptoms are:
- Impaired communication skills – Most autistic children learn a few basic words by the time they turn 3 but it is still not enough to speak naturally. They also face difficulty in imagining things or in recounting their experiences.
- Abnormal social behaviour – Autistic children are not prone to exhibit their emotions very naturally. They also take a lot of time in understanding and reacting to a situation. They pay less attention to social stimuli and don’t seem to understand other people’s emotions or needs.
- Repetitive behaviour – Actions like nodding head, flapping hands etc. are often repeated by autistic children at unexpected times. They also prefer an unchanging pattern in their life as they have difficulty in adapting to any kind of change. Some children also indulge in self-injuring activities.
- Heightened senses – In most autistic children it was found that their sensory organs like taste, smell and hearing have been heightened such that it is much more than those of normal children.
Apart from the broad symptoms, there are several smaller signs which can be noticed in autistic children from a very tender age. For example, most autistic children do not learn to respond to their name till a very late stage. They are also not very happy kids and smile very infrequently. Making eye-contact is another very big challenge for them and they generally tend to avoid it. In later stages of life, they have difficulty in making friends due to restrictions in ability to participate in imaginative social plays. Many a times they may get too preoccupied or focus too intensely on a particular object or subject.
There is no medical test for autism. The only way to know whether a child is autistic or not is by examining his behaviour and studying the symptoms of autism shown by him. A genetic test may be done in some cases, but mostly it is neither recommended nor required. It is important for every parent to know the symptoms of autism because they would be the first ones to notice it. There are, however, two instruments which help in diagnosing autism:
- Autism Diagnostic Interview Revised – This is basically an interview of the parents to know whether the symptoms they have noticed in their child could mean that he is autistic or not.
- Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – This methodology is used if the parents are not able to describe or if the description is not sufficient. Here, the doctor himself would observe the child for as long a period of time as required to come to a conclusion about the status of autism in the child.
The only way of diagnosing autism is through observation of the behaviour of the child. At the first step, if the parents are concerned that their child is showing signs of autism, the paediatrician would observe the child physically and check up on his developmental history. Subsequently, if there appears to be sufficient cause to believe that the child really could be autistic, a special team of multi-disciplinary doctors including a paediatrician, a psychiatrist, speech therapist and occupational therapist, might want to screen the child by observing his behaviour while he is alone and when he is interacting with others. Some other tests might also have to be conducted to rule out other diseases such as sleep disorder etc.
Each autistic child is unique and therefore there cannot be one common prognosis for all. The past practice, when autism had not been discovered, was to put children suffering from autism in mental institutions. Now, thankfully, with early diagnosis, several steps can be taken to help such children. In most cases the symptoms of autism fade with age, even to such an extent that the diagnosis of autism may be withdrawn. Having an IQ of 50 or above, having a talent or useful skill and being able to speak before turning 6 are some traits which can ensure that the child will lead a fairly normal life as an adult.
Autism is a genetic disorder and therefore preventing its occurrence after the child is born is next to impossible. However, since many a times the cause of autism is related to chemical exposure to the foetus, the mother-to-be should be careful to avoid dosage of those drugs which can harm the child in her womb. Consumption of Valproic acid, a drug prescribed for bipolar disorders, migraines and seizures as well as alcoholic beverages can often affect the foetus. Extreme precaution should be taken by pregnant women to avoid these.
Types of Autism :
Autism can be broadly classified into 3 categories:
- Asperger’s Syndrome – People diagnosed with this kind of Autism face difficulty in social interaction, lack communication skills and have coordination problems. However, kids with Asperger’s Syndrome have been found to be exceptionally talented with a very sharp brain and high IQ.
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified – This has been defined as stage zero to autism in which some characteristics of autism are shown by the child which may or may not be diagnosed as autism later.
- Autistic Disorder – This type is what is truly called autism and contains all the features and characteristics of autism like difficulty in communication, in social interaction etc.
An autistic person is prone to several problems which accompany autism. The worst of these problems are seizures which are quite common in autistic patients and start at a young age. Autistic persons are also extremely emotional and may face depression and severe mood swings. Sometimes, they have also been known to unresponsive to senses like heat, cold and pain.
Home Remedies :
An autistic child requires a lot of love and care from his parents and siblings. It is hard for him to understand the world and only his family can help him. Parents and elder siblings can also act as speech therapists to help him improve his communication skills as well as be his constant companion so that he does not feel lonely due to lack of social interaction.
Autism is one of the few diseases for which there is no medical treatment. There are specialized long-term programs for autistic children which conduct well-researched activities with and for the children to help them overcome the symptoms of Autism and lead as normal a life as possible. Skill-oriented training sessions are specially organized for such kids. Besides this, prescribed medication for seizures, depression etc. has to be taken at regular intervals.
Myths about Autism :
Several myths have surrounded autism since the time even before it was discovered. One of the myths is that autistic children are violent by nature which is absolutely false. Similarly, the myth that autistic people cannot have normal social relationships is also untrue. They also fall in love, get married and have a family of their own. Another ridiculous myth which as disproved was that autism develops in a child because his mother is cold to him or emotionally distant.