What is ASD?
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or just ‘Autism’ as it is referred to commonly, is a neurological disorder that is known to cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges in the development of an individual. It is known as a ‘spectrum’ disorder because the people affected experience a wide range of symptoms, each of them unique in severity.
People with Autism often need a lot of help navigating day-to-day life, but the degree of help required varies depending upon how well the individual is able to balance their disorder and life.
They usually do not look any different from those who are unaffected; the only tell-tales are in the way they behave and interact with others. However, it is important to remember that they are full human beings with valid feelings, too, which should be acknowledged and respected.
What are the signs and symptoms to look out for?
Children and adults with Autism face difficulty in social situations, especially when it comes to communicating what they want to say. They also have trouble conveying their emotions, and tend to avoid human interaction altogether due to this.
Some common signs that individuals with Autism display include:
- In children: Delay in learning to speak
- Inability to create or hold eye contact
- Hypersensitivity or Hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli
- Have difficulty in reading others’ gestures and intentions
- Often want to be alone
- Have trouble relating to others or forming connections
- Repeat their motor movements
- Have very rigid thinking patterns
- Shy away from human touch
- Avoid talking about their feelings
- Have trouble adjusting to changes in routine
- Repeat certain words and/or phrases: Echolalia
However, people with Autism are also more often than not, extremely talented in other non-routine activities. This is called the Savant Syndrome.
For example, there might be someone who can’t concentrate in Mathematics class, but can do 1359357 x 1359357 in his mind at the drop of a pin. There might be someone who could replicate the Mona Lisa, but would not be able to smile at societally-dictated occasions. Darold Traffert, famous psychiatrist, has extensively studied this syndrome, and suggests that, ‘savant skills may result from the formation of exceptional neural structures during prenatal brain development.’ While there is controversial evidence mounting against the study of this syndrome, evidence suggests that there is a strong genetic link between family members displaying similar talents.
It is extremely vital that we treat them just as we would treat anyone else, and not differentiate based on ability.
What are the causes of ASD?
We do not know all the causes of ASD, but we do know that there are predominantly genetic and biological factors involved, such as:
- Taking certain medicines meant for epilepsy and cancer during pregnancy, such as valproic acid and thalidomide
- Children born to older parents are at higher risk
- Children with a sibling with ASD are also likely to inherit ASD
- Individuals with certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, such as tuberous sclerosis, can have a greater chance of having it
- Children with very low birth weight are also at risk
ASD occurs among all racial, ethnic, and blood groups, but it has been found that it is 4 times more common among boys than in girls.
How can we diagnose and treat ASD?
Since there is no blood or other medical test that can diagnose ASD, doctors have to look at a child’s early behaviour and development to make a diagnosis.
Another problem with ASD is that it takes a longer time to diagnose, which means that children don’t get the early help that they require. There is also no known cure as such for ASD. However, research shows that early intervention in the form of helping children learn essential skills such as walking, talking, basic speech therapy, etc.
While learning these skills can make a child feel extremely self-conscious and unsure, it is crucial to a child’s development, and it is important to ensure that the child receives it at the right stage.
How can we be more empathetic towards people with Autism?
It is human nature to fear and discriminate against that which we don’t understand. The same is the case with respect to people with Autism. It is sad because they are often subjected to derogatory and hurtful name-calling such as ‘retard’ and ‘dork’, when in reality they’re just as human as everyone else. It would be very upsetting for any ‘normal’ person to listen to such things, so imagine how it would feel for those extremely talented people who have been misunderstood all their lives.
So how can we be more empathetic towards such individuals?
As a parent, encourage the talents of your child.
As a teacher, be vigilant and identify the signs and symptoms as early as possible.
As a friend, make sure the person isn’t left out in whatever you do together.
As a decent human being, be more accepting.
Remember, Autism is just an illness that a person has. The person is not the illness, themself.