Autism

One of the greatest joys of parenting is being able to communicate with one’s child. This is why knowing that a child has Autism or Autistic Disorder can be so painful and difficult to accept. The condition significantly impairs a person’s social and communication skills, so that it can feel like the autistic child is living in his own little world. Autism does occur on a spectrum, causing severe impairment in some and only mild impairment in others. However, once a child has been diagnosed with this condition – whether it is mild or severe – parents find themselves raising a “special needs child.” This brings new challenges to the already challenging job of parenting.

What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication, as well as tendency towards repetitive behavior. The exact cause of the disorder is not known, but it is believed to be a result of neurons misfiring and creating mixed communication in the brain. Symptoms of Autism appear early in a child’s life, sometimes as early as the first year. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for Autism yet, although parental support, behavioral therapy and special education can bring improvement in functioning and quality of life among children with Autism.

How Can I Tell if My Child Has Autism?
Like most developmental disorders, Autism is diagnosed using the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria found in the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A diagnosis of Autistic Disorder is given to a child when he or she meets certain criteria. Below: is a list of symptoms characteristic of Autism.  A mental health professional can assess whether your child’s symptoms meet criteria for a diagnosis of autism or another disorder on the autistic spectrum or another diagnosis altogether. It is also possible that, despite having some symptoms, your child does not meet criteria for any diagnosis at all. This why proper diagnosis and assessment by a qualified mental health professional is so essential; teachers, friends and others cannot make an accurate diagnosis!

A. Impairment in social interaction

This category of symptoms include impairments in the use of non-verbal communication (e.g. eye contact and gestures), failure to develop appropriate peer relationships, absence of spontaneous attempts to seek enjoyment with other people (e.g. not showing interest in other children playing), and the lack of social and emotional reciprocity.

B. Impairment in communication

This category includes symptoms like significant delay in language development, impairment in the ability to initiate conversation, stereotyped and repetitive use of language, and the lack of spontaneous make-believe play that is typical of children within a certain developmental level. It’s important to note the communication issues that are symptoms of Autism are not due to learning disabilities or physical disabilities.

C. Restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior

Children with Autism tend to get preoccupied with a small range of activities, and are prone to engaging in repetitive actions. For example, they might enjoy hitting just one key in the piano for hours. They also get easily obsessed with things that children without the condition will merely pass; for instance they can get preoccupied with random parts of an object. They might engage in ritualistic behavior, hand flapping, and sometimes in self-injury (like head-banging) as well. These obsessions, preoccupations and rituals are inflexible for the child with Autism.

Are There Different Kinds of Autism?
Symptoms of Autism exist in a range, from mild to severe. Some children are more open to social interaction and communication than others. Some persons with mild Autism for example can still be mainstreamed in traditional schools.

Other disorders are listed under the category Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These conditions are Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (you can find more information on these specific disorders on this site and online).

What Can Parents Do?
If you are concerned about your child’s social behavior, emotional reactions, habits or personality, get a referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist who can offer assessment and guidance. As for most developmental disorders, early detection and early intervention makes an important difference.

If a diagnosis of autism is confirmed, it’s time to learn as much as possible about the condition. There are many groups today that focus on Autism and  Autism Spectrum Disorders. The condition is more understood that it used to be, and parental support systems are well established. Benefit from the experience of others by accessing on-line support groups and/or joining groups offered by your local community mental health services. You will learn techniques for stimulating your child’s development at home. You will learn how to interact with him in order to bring out his best and reduce episodes of anger or anxiety. Becoming active in your child’s healing process is good for you as well as for the child, as it gives you more control and counteracts feelings of overwhelming helplessness. Your intervention can make a tremendous positive difference to your child’s development.

This being said, it is important to deal with your feelings about a diagnosis of Autism. Learning that your child has Autism can be a shock, and you might go through a grieving cycle as you readjust your hopes and dreams for this youngster. This is normal; there is a real loss when you know that your child has a developmental disorder. With time and/or professional help, you will eventually bounce back and open your self to the blessing of having a child with special needs. Interacting with a child with Autism requires a lot more patience and care than interacting with a child who doesn’t have the condition, but it has its rewards. The key is providing consistent stimulation in order to interest your child in social events. Training in communication skills, e.g. basic sign language can also help.

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