Autism and autism spectrum disorder are both general terms for a group of complex brain development disorders. Autism includes a wide range, or what is commonly referred to as a spectrum of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability. Persons on the autism spectrum often have these characteristics:
- Ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others
- Repetitive behaviors, as well as limited interests or activities
- Symptoms that are typically recognized in the first two years of life
- Symptoms that hurt the individual’s ability to function socially, at school or work, or other areas of life
Some people are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled. Treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function.
WHAT CAUSES AUTISM
There is no one cause of autism, just as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism.
A small number of these are sufficient to cause autism. Most cases of autism, however, appear to be caused by a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development.
In the presence of a genetic predisposition to autism, a number of non-genetic, or “environmental” stresses appear to further increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence of these autism risk factors involves events before and during birth. They include advanced parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. It is important to keep in mind that these factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase risk.
A growing body of research suggests that a woman can reduce her risk of having a child with autism by taking prenatal vitamins containing folic acid and/or eating a diet rich in folic acid (at least 600 mcg a day) during the months before and after conception.
Increasingly, researchers are looking at the role of the immune system in autism.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF AUTISM (ASD)
Parents or doctors may first identify ASD behaviors in infants and toddlers. School staff may recognize these behaviors in older children. But not all people with ASD will show all of these behaviors, but most will show several. There are two main types of behaviors: “restricted/repetitive behaviors” and “social communication/interaction behaviors.”
- Restrictive/repetitive behaviors may include:
- Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors
- Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects
- Having a lasting, intense interest in certain topics, such as numbers, details, or facts.
Social communication / interaction behaviors may include:
- Getting upset by a slight change in a routine or being placed in a new or overly stimulating setting
- Making little or inconsistent eye contact
- Having a tendency to look at and listen to other people less often
- Rarely sharing enjoyment of objects or activities by pointing or showing things to others
- Responding in an unusual way when others show anger, distress, or affection
- Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or other verbal attempts to gain attention
- Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversations
- Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond
- Repeating words or phrases that they hear, a behavior called echolalia
- Using words that seem odd, out of place, or have a special meaning known only to those familiar with that person’s way of communicating
- Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said
- Having an unusual tone of voice that may sound sing-song or flat and robot-like
- Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions.
People with ASD may have other difficulties, such as being very sensitive to light, noise, clothing, or temperature. They may also experience sleep problems, digestion problems, and irritability.
ASD is unique in that it is common for people with ASD to have many strengths and abilities, in addition to challenges.
Strengths and abilities may include:
- Having above-average intelligence – the CDC reports 46% of ASD children have above average intelligence
- Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time
- Being strong visual and auditory learners
- Excelling in math, science, music, or art.
ON THE SPECTRUM-PARENTING AND ASD
If you’ve recently learned that your child has or might have an autism spectrum disorder, you’re probably wondering and worrying about what comes next. No parent is ever prepared to hear that a child is anything other than happy and healthy, and a diagnosis of autism can be particularly frightening.
You may be unsure about how to best help your child, or confused by conflicting treatment advice. Or you may have been told that autism is an incurable, lifelong condition, leaving you concerned that nothing you do will make a difference.
The following are things that you can do to help your child deal with his or her condition.
LEARN ABOUT AUTISM
The more you know about autism spectrum disorders, the better equipped you’ll be to make informed decisions for your child. Educate yourself about the treatment options, ask questions, and participate in all treatment decisions.
BECOME AN EXPERT ON YOUR CHILD
Figure out what triggers your kid’s “bad” or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. What does your autistic child find stressful? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems and preventing situations that cause difficulties.
ACCEPT YOUR CHILD, QUIRKS AND ALL
Rather than focusing on how your autistic child is different from other children and what he or she is “missing,” practice acceptance. Enjoy your kid’s special quirks, celebrate small successes, and stop comparing your child to others. Feeling unconditionally loved and accepted will help your child more than anything else.
DON’T GIVE UP
It’s impossible to predict the course of an autism spectrum disorder. Don’t jump to conclusions about what life is going to be like for your child. Like everyone else, people with autism have an entire lifetime to grow and develop their abilities.
Children with autism have a hard time adapting what they’ve learned in one setting (such as school) to others, including the home. For example, your child may use sign language at school to communicate, but never think to do so at home. Creating consistency in your child’s environment is the best way to reinforce learning.
STICK TO A SCHEDULE
Children with autism tend to do best when they have a highly-structured schedule or routine. Again, this goes back to the consistency they both need and crave. Set up a schedule for your child, with regular times for meals, therapy, school, and bedtime. Try to keep disruptions to this routine to a minimum. If there is an unavoidable schedule change, prepare your child for it in advance.
REWARD GOOD BEHAVIOR
Positive reinforcement can go a long way with children with autism, so make an effort to “catch them doing something good.” Praise them when they act appropriately or learn a new skill, being very specific about what behavior they’re being praised for. Also, look for other ways to reward them for good behavior, such as giving them a sticker or letting them play with a favorite toy.
CREATE A HOME SAFETY ZONE
Have a private space in your home where your child can relax, feel secure, and be safe. This will involve organizing and setting boundaries in ways your child can understand. Visual cues can be helpful (colored tape marking areas that are off limits, labeling items in the house with pictures). You may also need to safety proof the house, particularly if your child is prone to tantrums or other self-injurious behaviors.
THE PREVALENCE OF AUTISM
About 1 child in every 68 has been identified with ASD, according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Development Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) network. While it is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups ASD is more common in boys than girls with the stats showing 1 in every 42 for boys and 1 in every 189 for girls.
HELP IS AVAILABLE IN GUYANA
There exists only a few places in Guyana equipped to deal with ASD cases, one such resource is the Step by Step Foundation and School. It was founded in 2011 and has retained the service of a behavioral analyst who consults, supervises and trains personnel that work with kids on the Autistic spectrum as well as other neurological disorders. They have a website and Facebook page that give valuable information about the disorder and insights into the activities of the school and students there.
Website – http://stepbystepguyana.org/
Facebook page – Step by Step Guyana
HELP THOSE LIVING WITH ASD
The Step by Step Foundation relies heavily on sponsorship and fundraising activities to keep their programs and school going. They have acquired land upon which they intend to build a larger and more comprehensive school that would be able to accommodate more children and better meet their needs.