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Autism myths and facts
February 11, 2018, 12:55 pm

Sixty or more years ago, if you had a child with autism, you would most likely be told to put him in a mental health institution and move on with your life. Children with the most severe autism symptoms — obsessively spinning in circles, unable to verbalize clearly ,throwing tantrums and shrieking at small changes in their daily routines — baffled physicians and researchers alike.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, schools dedicated to teaching children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) first began to appear; some were founded by parents themselves, with dedicated teachers and therapists working to help these children cope with this disorder.

With autism on the increase and no cure in sight, the number of children with ASD who need special education service is rising. Whether you are the parent of a child with ASD or simply curious about how these children can be taught, you will be amazed as to how far the teachers and therapist have come.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that has been caused by a brain abnormality and is characterized by social impairments, cognitive impairments, communication difficulties, and repetitive behavior. A person with ASD will typically prefer to stick to a set of behaviors and will resist any major or minor changes to their daily activities.

Autism is a wide spectrum disorder — no two people with autism will have exactly the same symptoms. It can range from very mild to very severe and occur in any ethnic, socioeconomic and age groups.  Trends show that while 15 to 30 percent of children with autism have an average IQ, while less than 5 percent can have an IQ which is above average. Some children with autism appear normal before age 1 and 2 and then suddenly ‘regress’ and lose language or social skills they had previously gained.  This is called the regressive type of autism.

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. Their cognitive skills may develop fast while their social and language skills trail behind, or language skills may develop rapidly while their motor skills do not. Generally, the social skills of a person with autism will not develop at the same pace as other normal person.

Scientists do not know the exact causes of ASD. However research does suggest that both genes and environment play contributing roles. In identical twins who share the exact same genetic code, if one has ASD, the other twin also has ASD in nearly 9 out of 10 cases.  If one sibling has ASD, the other siblings have 35 times the normal risk of developing the disorder.  Researchers are only starting to identify particular genes that may increase the risk for ASD. Many people who develop ASD have no reported family history of autism, suggesting that random, rare and possibly many gene mutations are likely to affect a person’s risk. 

Researchers are also studying environmental factors such as family medical conditions, parental age and other demographic factors, exposure to toxins, and complications during birth or pregnancy s causes behind autism.

Professionals now diagnose ASD on the basis of difficulties in two areas.  A child will need to have difficulties in both areas to be diagnosed with ASD.  The two areas are deficiency in social communication, including rarely using language to communicate with other people, not speaking at all, not responding when spoken to, or not copying other people’s actions, such as clapping. The second area is fixated interests and repetitive behavior. Examples of this include lining toys up in a particular way over and over again, or having very narrow and intense interests.

While there is no proven cure yet for ASD, treating it early, using school-based programs, and getting proper medical care can greatly reduce ASD symptoms and increase the child's ability to grow and learn new skills. Children with ASD who received early intervention tend to have better brain function, communication skills and overall social behavior compared to ASD children with no early intervention. Early intervention may also improve the child's IQ, language, and everyday functional skills, also called adaptive behavior.

Only a parent or a family member of a child with ASD can really understand the gravity of this disorder. The journey is challenging to say the least. And the journey becomes only more testing when society at large is insensitive or ignorant to the needs of these special children.

Mini Kurian is a special educator, counselor and researcher in autism

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