There are growing international chorus of voices calling for action to enable children and persons with autism to lead full and meaningful lives. According to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, this is not a far-off dream; it is a reality that can be attained by promoting positive perceptions about autism as well as a greater social understanding of this growing challenge. Winifred Ogbebo reports.
Autism is known as a complex developmental disability. Experts believe that Autism presents itself during the first three years of a person’s life. The condition is the result of a neurological disorder that has an effect on normal brain function, affecting development of the person’s communication and social interaction skills, says Dr Nelvin Eze.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), despite the high burden of autism and other developmental disorders in children and adolescents, these conditions have been widely neglected by policy makers and public health experts, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
As a consequence, the health organisation said, children and families in need have often poor access to services and do not receive adequate treatment and care. Greater investments in advocacy, awareness, research, and services and human resource development are needed.
Experts have come up with some tips on how to deal with autistic people. According to them, people with autism have issues with non-verbal communication, a wide range of social interactions, and activities that include an element of play and/or banter.
ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder and can sometimes be referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. In this text Autism and ASD mean the same. ASDs are any developmental disabilities that have been caused by a brain abnormality. A person with an ASD typically has difficulty with social and communication skills.
A person with ASD will typically also prefer to stick to a set of behaviors and will resist any major (and many minor) changes to daily activities. Several relatives and friends of people with ASDs have commented that if the person knows a change is coming in advance, and has time to prepare for it; the resistance to the change is either gone completely or is much lower.
Autism is a wide-spectrum disorder
Autism (or ASD) is a wide-spectrum disorder. This means that no two people with autism will have exactly the same symptoms. As well as experiencing varying combinations of symptoms, some people will have mild symptoms while others will have severe ones. Below is a list of the most commonly found characteristics identified among people with an ASD.
The way in which a person with an ASD interacts with another individual is quite different compared to how the rest of the population behaves. If the symptoms are not severe, the person with ASD may seem socially clumsy, sometimes offensive in his/her comments, or out of synch with everyone else. If the symptoms are more severe, the person may seem not to be interested in other people at all.
It is common for relatives, friends and people who interact with someone with an ASD to comment that the ASD sufferer makes very little eye contact. However, as health care professionals, teachers and others are improving their ability to detect signs of autism at an earlier age than before, eye contact among people with autism is improving. In many cases, if the symptoms are not severe, the person can be taught that eye contact is important for most people and he/she will remember to look people in the eye.
A person with autism may often miss the cues we give each other when we want to catch somebody’s attention. The person with ASD might not know that somebody is trying to talk to them. They may also be very interested in talking to a particular person or group of people, but does not have the same skills as others to become fully involved. To put it more simply, they lack the necessary playing and talking skills.
Empathy - Understanding and being aware of the feelings of others
A person with autism will find it much harder to understand the feelings of other people. His/her ability to instinctively empathize with others is much weaker than other people’s. However, if they are frequently reminded of this, the ability to take other people’s feelings into account improves tremendously. In some cases - as a result of frequent practice - empathy does improve, and some of it becomes natural rather than intellectual. Even so, empathy never comes as naturally for a person with autism as it does to others.
Having a conversation with a person with autism may feel very much like a one-way trip. The person with ASD might give the impression that he is talking at people, rather than with or to them. He may love a theme, and talk about it a lot. However, there will be much less exchanging of ideas, thoughts, and feelings than there might be in a conversation with a person who does not have autism.
Almost everybody on this planet prefers to talk about himself/herself more than other people; it is human nature. The person with autism will usually do so even more.
A number of children with an ASD do not like cuddling or being touched like other children do. It is wrong to say that all children with autism are like that. Many will hug a relative - usually the mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, teacher, and or sibling(s) - and enjoy it greatly. Often it is a question of practice and anticipating that physical contact is going to happen. For example, if a child suddenly tickles another child’s feet, he will most likely giggle and become excited and happy. If that child were to tickle the feet of a child with autism, without that child anticipating the contact, the result might be completely different.
Loud noises, some smells, and lights
A person with autism usually finds sudden loud noises unpleasant and quite shocking. The same can happen with some smells and sudden changes in the intensity of lighting and ambient temperature. Many believe it is not so much the actual noise, smell or light, but rather the surprise, and not being able to prepare for it - similar to the response to surprising physical contact. If the person with autism knows something is going to happen, he can cope with it much better. Even knowing that something ‘might’ happen, and being reminded of it, helps a lot.
The higher the severity of the autism, the more affected are a person’s speaking skills. Many children with an ASD do not speak at all. People with autism will often repeat words or phrases they hear - an event called echolalia.
The speech of a person with ASD may sound much more formal and woody, compared to other people’s speech. Teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome can sometimes sound like young professors. Their intonation may sound flat.
A person with autism likes predictability. Routine is his/her best friend. Going through the motions again and again is very much part of his/her life. To others, these repetitive behaviors may seem like bizarre rites. The repetitive behavior could be a simple hop-skip-jump from one end of the room to the other, repeated again and again for one, five, or ten minutes - or even longer. Another could be drawing the same picture again and again, page after page.
People without autism are much more adaptable to changes in procedure. A child without autism may be quite happy to first have a bath, then brush his teeth, and then put on his pajamas before going to bed - even though he usually brushes his teeth first. For a child with autism, this change, bath first and then teeth, could completely put him/her out, and they may become very upset. Some people believe that helping a child with autism learn how to cope better with change is a good thing, however, forcing them to accept change like others do could adversely affect their quality of life.
A child with autism develops differently
While a child without autism will develop in many areas at a relatively harmonious rate, this may not be the case for a child with autism. His/her cognitive skills may develop fast, while their social and language skills trail behind. On the other hand, his/her language skills may develop rapidly while their motor skills don’t. They may not be able to catch a ball as well as the other children, but could have a much larger vocabulary. Nonetheless, the social skills of a person with autism will not develop at the same pace as other people’s.
Learning may be unpredictable
How quickly a child with autism learns things can be unpredictable. They may learn something much faster than other children, such as how to read long words, only to forget them completely later on. They may learn how to do something the hard way before they learn how to do it the easy way.
Physical tics and stimming
It is not uncommon for people with autism to have tics. These are usually physical movements that can be jerky. Some tics can be quite complicated and can go on for a very long time. A number of people with autism are able to control when they happen, others are not. People with ASD who do have tics often say that they have to be expressed, otherwise the urge does not stop. For many, going through the tics is enjoyable, and they have a preferred spot where they do them - usually somewhere private and spacious. When parents first see these tics, especially the convoluted ones, they may experience shock and worry.
People with autism often have obsessions.