In April we bring awareness to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This phrase is used so regularly and loosely nowadays that it’s important to bring awareness to the right thing. Autism is difficult to understand because it’s not a straightforward illness. There’s no one thing that you can “fix” to “cure” it, all patients do not have the same symptoms or difficulties and some need a lot more help than others. The more Autism because a colloquial word, the more I fear the corruption of the understanding of what autism is. Not everyone who doesn’t like to socialise with you has autism.
Autism is caused by a genetic abnormality sometimes exacerbated by environmental factors. It has a higher prevalence in boys than girls and there is a slightly higher risk of ASD in babies born to mothers of an older age. We can categorise symptoms of Autism into those that cause developmental delays and thus difficulties in learning, those that cause abnormal social interactions and those repetitive abnormal behaviours. For the developmental delay it can range very widely. Most children start losing basic words at around 2 years old. It can be a very traumatic experience for parents who see their baby grow following typical milestones until they start to literally regress and lose a lot of what they’ve learnt. They lose both verbal and non-verbal communication which leads to much of the behaviour that people associate with autism. There are some on the spectrum though who have normal intellectual ability or even superior intellectual ability although still abnormal social cues. They are sometimes called high-functioning (the term Asperger’s syndrome has been absorbed into ASD). These are the characters that are often displayed in movies such as The Accountant with Ben Afleck.
Particularly hard for parents as well is losing the giggle of their baby. Babies and then toddler grow in their level of engagement as the months and year go by. They welcome you home with a bright smile, they bring toys to show you and they want to talk to you about everything. Children with ASD lose this level of engagement and can be very distant, very unlike another toddler. They also have difficulty with friendships because of a lack of ability to interpret friendly intention. They also have little sense for what may or may not be appropriate. For friends of those with ASD it is very important to understand their condition. Unfortunately, statistics show that as they get older they become more and more isolated. Bringing more awareness to what ASD is all about can help with that.
Lastly, ASD is often characterised by “odd” behaviour. Children may obsess over objects that are not typically associated with children, they react excessively to environmental stimuli, like screaming uncontrollably because of the noisy blender, they may behave erratically when there is a change in routine, often displaying intense anger. It is important to support parents because it’s hard for them to cope with the sometimes violent mood swings. We must remember that this is a genetic abnormality and so not just a child throwing a tantrum. They have odd repetitive behaviours like rocking back and forth or head banging and have a very high pain threshold. What another child would come screaming and crying to their parent for a child with ASD may not. They may pull toys apart and play only with just one part of it and they may sit and stare at a fan spinning for hours. Trying to displace them often causes anger.
Although all of these things are common and true, it is always important to remember that they are still unique human beings. They each have their own personalities, their own quirks and their own amazing qualities. Just like we help others with any other illness, we should similarly become knowledgeable about ASD and support the children and caretakers as best we can.
Hopefully this made ASD a little clearer! It’s more than just someone not being sociable and although the spectrum varies widely, it can be a very serious and challenging disorder to deal with at times.