Autism is a disorder that typically affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships with others, and respond appropriately to the environment. Some people with autism have relatively high IQ, able to speak (verbal) and are not developmentally delayed. Others are developmentally delayed, not able to speak (non-verbal) or have serious language delays. For some, autism makes them seem closed off and shut down; others seem locked into repetitive behaviours and rigid patterns of thinking.
Although people with autism do not have exactly the same symptoms and deficits, they tend to share certain social, communication, motor, and sensory problems that affect their behaviour in predictable ways. From the start, most infants are social beings. Early in life, they gaze at people, turn toward voices, grasp a finger, and even smile.
Most children with autism seem to have tremendous difficulty learning to engage in the give-and-take of everyday human interaction. They seem to prefer being alone. They may resist attention and affection or passively accept hugs and cuddling.
Research shows that about half of the children diagnosed with autism remain non-verbal throughout their lives. Although they may learn to communicate using sign language or pictures or special electronic equipment, they may never speak. Others may be delayed, developing language as late as age 5 to 8. Some children with autism are only able to parrot what they hear, a condition called echolalia.
To compound the problem, people with autism have problems seeing things from another person's point of view. Most 5-year-olds understand that other people have different information, feelings, and goals than they have. A person with autism may lack such understanding. This inability leaves them unable to predict or understand other people's actions.
Some people with autism also tend to be physically aggressive at times, making social relationships still more difficult. Some lose control, particularly when they're in a strange or overwhelming environment, or when angry and frustrated. They are capable at times of breaking things, attacking others, or harming themselves.
One child, for example, may fall into a rage, biting and kicking when he is frustrated or angry. Another child, when tense or overwhelmed, may break a window or throw things. Others are self-destructive, banging their heads, pulling their hair, or biting their arms.
Temple Grandin, an exceptional woman with autism who has written books about her disorder admits,
“not being able to speak was utter frustration. Screaming was the only way I could communicate.”
Until they are taught better means of expressing their needs, people with autism do whatever they can to communicate with others.
There is no one cause for autism. In the 1970s and 1980s autism the ‘Refrigerator Mum” theory was put forward. Parents especially mothers were blamed for their child’s autism. Thankfully, this theory has been thrown out.
Today researchers are looking into the possibility of an ‘autism gene’ among others. There does seem to be some genetic influence and it is not uncommon to find the symptoms of autism existing in more than one child in a family.
Speech – Language Therapy: Autistic children usually have delays in communication. Some are non-verbal, and some who are verbal may also have deficiencies or are unable to use language in a meaningful way. A Speech Therapist who specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of language and speech disorders, can help a child learn how to effectively communicate.
Occupational Therapy: Commonly focuses on improving fine motor skills, such as brushing teeth, feeding and writing, or sensory motor skills that include balance, awareness of body position and touch.
Physiotherapy: specialises in developing strength, coordination and movement. Therapists work on gross motor skills. This therapy is concerned with improving function of the body’s larger muscles through physical activities including exercise.
Behaviour Modification: Another form of therapy that children with autism have been shown to benefit from. It teaches children with autism how to learn. There are various forms of behaviour modification and parents are advised to take into account their child’s individual needs and also the needs of the family.
Autism is now not considered to be a hopeless situation and children with autism can go on to achieve a lot of things in life, which were thought not possible. What is important is that these children receive treatment early, preferable before the age of 3. Here in Sabah, we still lack services for individuals with autism. Parents must play a greater role in advocating for these services and also in ensuring that their child or children are given the services their child require to help him or her reach his fullest potential.