Autism – you hear the word bandied about all the time, but how much do you really know about the condition?
What is autism?
“It’s a brain disorder that results in behaviour disorders,” says Dr. Joseph E. Morrow, Professor Emeritus and professor of psychology and behaviour analysis at the California State University in Sacramento.
Autism is a wide spectrum disorder – which means that the symptoms and severity vary greatly.
“Some children may be non-verbal even till they enter late childhood, while others may have language skills but lack appropriate communication because the language may be odd or inappropriate. Some children may have reduced eye contact; others not at all,” explains Dr Chong Shang Chee, head and senior consultant at the Child Development Unit of the University Children’s Medical Institute at National University Hospital (NUH).
“Generally, learning can be affected to various degrees, and some can have low cognitive (intellectual) function, while others maintain average – or may even have above average – cognitive abilities.”
Then there’s Asperger’s Syndrome, which Dr Morrow terms “high functioning autism”. These kids have normal IQ and may have very rich vocabularies when it comes to their favourite topics, but have poor social skills. For instance, they may interpret what you say too literally and respond in a manner you don’t expect. Many have talents in a specific area, adds Dr Chong. Asperger’s itself is a wide spectrum disorder.
Only five to 10 per cent of autism sufferers are “savants” with exceptional skills, like the character in the movie Rain Man.
There is no cure for autism, although some parents have reported progress with certain methods.
How many kids suffer from it?
About one in 150 kids in Singapore have autism, which higher than the world average of one in 160 kids. This article explains why.
What are the symptoms?
“Parents should look for signs that the child is not imitating, not interested in pleasing you and, most importantly, not developing speech. They should be looking at these things at least by 18 months,” says Dr Morrow. He recommends The Chat (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) test.
Dr Chong says some symptoms may appear earlier than age two, like not responding when his name is called, even though he has normal hearing; not making eye contact; and parents not being able to get his attention.
“Many mothers report that their babies seem very passive,” he adds. “These children may not enjoy play with the parents or with other kids, have lack of imitation of actions, have few gestures which they perform or understand, and do not enjoy being bounced on the knee, playing social games like peekaboo or demonstrating affection to their caregivers.”
They may prefer what she calls “non-functional play”, like repeatedly spinning toys and lining up objects, and have body mannerisms like hand flapping and spinning around. They may take interest in things that are usually not attractive to others.
If they’re older, parents or teachers may notice that they don’t like playing with other kids, or that their play lacks imagination and symbolism, which should be clear by age three.
Read this Singapore mum’s heartwarming experience of raising a child with high-functioning autism and watch this video by Autism Network Singapore to understand more about the disorder:
Should I invite my kid’s autistic classmate to his birthday party?
“It is important that children be taught from young that autistic kids are special, and are, hence, also to be included and loved as friends,” Dr Chong says.
Author Brenda Tan adds: “You can ask if there’s anything you can do to make the child more comfortable. Usually, space and less noise would be good. Because it is often difficult for them to control their impulses, do not display food prominently if you do not want them to eat yet (for example, if you plan to have games first). Be prepared that the autistic child may want to leave early if he finds the environment stressful.”
My kid’s autistic classmate hits her.
Tell her the classmate probably isn’t doing so on purpose, and that the child is special and needs her help in learning to be friends, advises Dr Chong. Dr Morrow adds that it’s also important that your kid protects herself: “She should be taught the difference between annoyance and safety issues, and how she can deal differently with each.” And do alert the teacher, too.
My cousin’s kid has just been diagnosed with autism. What do I say when he comes over to play?
Dr Chong says: “Your actions will say much if the child is still involved in your kids’ circle of friends. Read about the disorder so that you understand it better. Be sympathetic and ask your cousin how you can use this opportunity of play to help this child.
“Remember that autistic children also have strengths, and if your kids laugh or exclude him because of his difficulties, you need to intervene and explain. Praise him in front of your kids so that they can see that this child is loved, accepted and included in your family circle.”
Brenda adds: “Be a good listener but do not be quick to offer advice.” Dr Morrow also recommends explaining the difference between being mean and not knowing how to interact, or the different between being “stupid” and having a brain disorder.
Autism resources in Singapore
Autism Association (Singapore) is a charity under the National Council of Social Services. It offers early intervention programmes and a youth centre, and operates Eden School for those with moderate to severe autism. Visit www.autismlinks.org.sg/main.
Autism Resource Centre is a non-profit organisation with information and services like assessment and diagnosis, early intervention programmes and therapy. It started Pathlight School. Check out www.autism.org.sg.
ABC Center Singapore is the local branch of Dr Morrow’s company, Applied Behavior Consultants. It offers applied behaviour analysis services for autism and other developmental disabilities. Dr Morrow will hold a talk here in June for parents; check with the centre for details closer to the date. Visit www.abccentersingapore.com.
Also visit the World Autism Awareness Singapore Facebook page for updates on news and events.