Hi guys. If you follow the news, you most likely would have come across this word at least once – Autism! Most especially because the month of April is the month of awareness for autism.
This is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviour. A neurodevelopmental disorder is an impairment of the growth and development of the brain or central nervous system. The term refers to a disorder of brain function that affects emotion, learning ability, self-control and memory and these unfold as the individual grows.
Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells connect and organise; how this occurs is not well understood. Autism is one of three recognised disorders in the autism spectrum (ASDs), the other two being Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (commonly abbreviated as PDD-NOS), which is diagnosed when the full set of criteria for autism or Asperger syndrome are not met. Autism, in short, seems to be the end result or “final common pathway” of numerous disorders that affect brain development.
In a developing country like Nigeria, with cultures that are highly ignorant to diseases of mental origin, it is difficult to see people properly come to terms with the fact that their children do not behave “normal” and attribute it to a neurodevelopmental disorder. Rather, they blame it on witchcraft or demonic possession.
WHAT CAUSES AUTISM?
Autism is highly heritable, however researchers suspect both environmental and genetic factors as causes. In very rare cases, autism is strongly associated with agents that cause birth defects. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting the theory that the disorder has a genetic basis. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that children with autism may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single “trigger” that causes autism to develop. Some researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development, resulting in autism while others are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances and exposure to chemicals.
WHO IS AFFECTED?
Autism and other ASDs can be found in people all around the world and among all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 1 in 150 – children in the United States have an ASD. The disorder occurs four times more often in boys (usually the first-born) than in girls. However, girls with the disorder generally have more severe symptoms and greater intellectual impairment. Of interest is the fact that more people than ever are being diagnosed with autism or another ASD. Government statistics indicate that the rate of autism is rising between 10 and 17 percent each year. What accounts for this startling rise? It could be that much of this increase stems from newer (and broader) definitions of ASDs, as well as more targeted efforts at diagnosis. For example, a child who is diagnosed with autism today may have been considered merely “odd” 20 or 30 years ago. But it could also be that there has been an actual increase in the number of people with an ASD. Many experts believe that the explanation is likely to be found in a combination of these factors.
SYMPTOMS AND DIAGNOSIS
“I always tried to avoid social occasions but when I couldn’t get out of them I’d end up sitting in a corner, lost in a world of my own.”- Simon
“I realised why I don’t always understand what people are saying or feeling. And I realised why I sometimes feel isolated and alone.”- Andy
“I did not utter my first word till I was five years of age and even then I only repeated lines from TV shows.” – Karen
“I really couldn’t deal with being in a classroom with other people all day, when all I wanted was to be alone. I didn’t know how to talk to people or make friends and being close to others made me very uncomfortable.” – Anonymous
These are true life stories from autistic adults who have succeeded in pushing their way through life by knowing their difference and making necessary adjustments with the help of caregivers. Symptoms are divided broadly into three;
Social development: Unusual social development becomes apparent early in childhood. Autistic infants show less attention to social stimuli, smile and look at others less often, and respond less to their own name. Three- to five-year-old children with autism are less likely to exhibit social understanding, approach others spontaneously, imitate and respond to emotions, communicate nonverbally, and take turns with others. However, they do form attachments to their primary caregivers.
Communication Skills: About a third to a half of individuals with autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs. In first year of life, there may be delayed onset of babbling, unusual gestures, diminished responsiveness, and vocal patterns that are not synchronised with the caregiver. Joint attention seems to be necessary for functional speech, and deficits in joint attention seem to distinguish infants with ASD. For example, they may look at a pointing hand instead of the pointed-at object, and they consistently fail to point at objects in order to comment on or share an experience. Children with autism may have difficulty with imaginative play and with developing symbols into language.
Repetitive Behaviour: Autistic individuals display many forms of repetitive or restricted behaviour, which the Repetitive Behaviour Scale-Revised (RBS-R) categorises as follows:
• Stereotypy is repetitive movement, such as hand flapping, head rolling, or body rocking.
• Compulsive behavior is intended and appears to follow rules, such as arranging objects in stacks or lines.
• Sameness is resistance to change; for example, insisting that the furniture not be moved or refusing to be interrupted.
Finally, like Dr. Temple Gandin said, “There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do than what he cannot do.” So let us remember to see autistic people, both children and adults, as different not deficient and deserving of love and respect. Till next time, stay healthy and stay positive!