What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that affects communication, social interaction, and play skills. About 1 in 68 people are diagnosed with Autism and boys are approximately four times more likely to have it than girls. It affects the way the brain works and should be diagnosed by a medical professional – preferably a developmental pediatrician.

Although every child with autism is different, children with autism will usually have:

  • Trouble learning language as well as problems with communication, both spoken and non-spoken, like eye contact, gestures, and pointing.
  • Problems with social skills, such as sharing emotions, understanding how people are feeling, expressing empathy or having a conversation.
  • Unusual behaviours (e.g., hand flapping, rocking, biting), play that is repetitive and unusual and a strong preference for sticking to a routine.
  • Trouble processing things they hear, see, smell, touch or taste.

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder, meaning some people are affected mildly while others are affected severely. Autism is an evolving disorder and your child’s symptoms and needs may change as they pass through different stages of development.

What Causes Autism?

No one knows. Though genetics play a role in the development of the disorder, there are many other factors that affect the onset and severity of autism. As a parent, you need to realize that autism is NOT a result of something you did or did not do for your child.

How Can I Help a Child with Autism?

Early intervention is very effective in Autism and improves a child’s ability to cope well with this life-long condition.

The best strategies encourage therapists and parents to work with the child’s own interests or actions to slowly build engagement, interaction, and communication. Play often works better than more directive methods to help children learn. Recent research has shown these approaches to be very effective for children with autism.

The Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) approach focuses on the child’s interests and motivation to learn new, more adaptive behaviours. They are based on the principles of reward and reinforcement for appropriate behaviours.

Occupational therapy helps children develop appropriate social, play, and learning skills. The therapist aids the child in achieving normal daily tasks (e.g., getting dressed and playing with other children). Occupational therapists may use aspects of sensory integration therapy in order to help the child appropriately respond to and organize information coming through the senses.

Speech and language therapy is often beneficial for children with autism since about 30-50% of them do not use speech. Conventional methods of speech therapy are not always effective. The therapist should have a good understanding of autism and be able to emphasize non-verbal communication, like pictures and gestures if necessary. For children who speak, a speech & language therapist helps them by enabling them to use their language for social interaction and play. Play is often challenging for children who are verbal.

When choosing an intervention plan, educate yourself on the options which have been scientifically tested and shown to be effective for managing autism symptoms. Be aware that the internet is full of therapies that lack evidence supporting their use with autism. The best intervention plans are those which incorporate aspects of all of the aforementioned therapies as per the child’s needs and abilities.

The earlier the intervention is implemented, the better the outcome for your child. Research also shows that children whose families are strongly engaged and involved make better progress. Consistency and structure are very important. If you can work closely with your child’s therapist and teachers so that everyone is responding the same way, your child will benefit a lot.

Can a Child with Autism Do Well at School?

Children with autism are just like other kids in many ways. Some are very bright; some may be intellectually impaired. Their skills may be strong in some areas (memory, math, music) and weak in others (speech, self-care). Regardless of their abilities, it is important for children with autism to attend school because it provides a structured environment with clearly laid out expectations as well as opportunities for interacting with children of their age. Attending school is great therapy!

Talk to your paediatrician or therapist to help you decide the best type of school for your child. Options include a regular school, an inclusive school (in which most children are typical, but some students have special needs), and special schools (meant specifically for children with disabilities).