Autism explained
Dr Karla Hylton

KNOWLEDGE is empowerment and many times neurodivergent individuals are ostracised and misunderstood. I would like to examine one of these conditions, autism, with the hope to bring clarity and acceptance of this diagnosis. Autism affects approximately one per cent of the population and people with this disorder are subjected to stigma and discrimination.

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for a broad range of conditions involving social skills challenges, repetitive behaviour, speech and communication difficulties. It is a developmental disorder caused by differences in the brain, hence the connection to neurodiversity. The person's physical appearance is not affected.

Autism has many subtypes, most of which are influenced by a combination of genetic and pre- and postnatal environmental factors. It is a spectrum disorder, making each diagnosis unique. Some people with ASD may require a lot of support while others require less. Early intervention leads to positive outcomes, and signs may be detected as early as two years of age.

Unfortunately, autism is a lifelong condition but not a life sentence as treatments and services can improve a person's symptoms and function. In 2013, Asperger's syndrome was merged into the diagnosis of ASD. Children with the former Asperger's have symptoms that are typically on the milder side of the autism spectrum.

There is no cure for ASD but there are several effective interventions that can optimise a child's functioning. These are tailor made for your unique child and could include one or more of the following:

•Social skills training which generally focus on improving social skills and building emotional bonds.

•Speech and language therapy

•Parent awareness and training

•Medication — even though there are no medications directly that treat core symptoms of ASD, there are some that can treat co-occurring symptoms. For example, medications are available to help manage high energy levels, lack of focus, anxiety or self-harming behaviours.

•Behavioural treatment known as applied behaviour analysis.

•Psychological approaches such as cognitive behaviour therapy.

•Physical therapy to improve physical skills.

Having a child with autism is a stressful situation. It is important that parents, care givers and educators be well informed on the condition. Many people are of the opinion that autism is a behavioural disorder, and while behaviours can be confusing, concerning and sometimes disruptive, behavioural changes is only superficial. There is an underlying root cause based on brain development which may lead to some of the following:

1) Over or under reaction to sensations such as touch and sound

2) Strong auditory memories where some children can easily memorise scripts

3) Strong visual memories

4) Delayed language skills

5) Avoiding eye contact

6) Lack of empathy

7) Lack of facial expressions, so emotions such as happy, sad, and angry may not be easily detectable

8) Obsessive interests

9) May rock body or spin self in circles

10) Unusual eating and sleeping habits.

If you suspect that your young child may be autistic, it is best to contact your child's doctor who may recommend specialised evaluation. Be sure to keep informed so that you know what questions to ask. Diagnosing ASD is difficult as there is no medical test, like a blood test. Instead, doctors investigate the child's developmental history and behaviour in order to diagnose. Researchers continue to explore additional methods to address ASD.

Dr Karla Hylton is the founder and CEO of Your Empowerment Solutions (YES) Institute, offering mathematics and science tutoring as well as a host of workshops for parents, teachers, and students. She is the author of Yes! You Can Help Your Child Achieve Academic Success and Complete Chemistry for Caribbean High Schools. Reach her at (876) 564-1347; e-mail: ceo@yes-institute.com; or visit www.yes-institute.com, or www.khylton.com.

Dr Karla Hylton

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