I am at a park. I see a smart little boy. He is in the pink of health and seems perfect in every respect. Yet, he is somehow different. He has a detached attitude, is disinterested in the games other children are playing. Not even attracted to the rides other children his age are cuing up for, shrieking with laughter and fun.
Suddenly, he rolls on the ground. Then he gets up and starts spinning the propellers of a toy helicopter. He picks up grass and leaves and puts them in his mouth. His anxious mother tries her best to stop him, but is unable to. He starts howling when a passing truck honks. While other children sit on the merry-go-round, his attention is riveted to its axis, as if in transfixion. When the mother tries to take him home, he just lies on the grass and refuses to move. She tries unsuccessfully to get him interested in play; she tries to calm him down, continually asking what is bothering him, why he isn’t playing with the rest of the children. He makes no attempt to reply, remains inconsolable. His mother seems helpless. Finally, she gives up and calls the driver to carry him to the car.
At her wits’ end and near tears, the poor mother thinks that the child is deliberately being difficult, or is not “normal.” Unbeknown to her, the child suffers from a condition about which not enough is known – autism. The symptoms were so clear that I as a trained therapist immediately knew that she needed help. She told me that all the teachers complained that she had an unruly kid, that she had further spoiled him by not disciplining him properly.
She was desperate to know. Why didn’t he play, talk and laugh like other kids? In her heart, she was sure that he was capable of a lot more but there was something holding him back. At the same time, there was this lurking doubt. Did he have mental problems! I suggested that she immediately see a neurologist.
According to the TEACCH Autism Program of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, autism is one of the most common developmental disabilities in the world, affecting one out of every 166 children. This makes it the second most common developmental disability – its prevalence even higher than Down’s syndrome.
Although the symptoms of autism are quite obvious by age two, parents normally don’t seek help till the child reaches pre-school. Their world turns upside down when they are told by the teacher that there is something “wrong” with their child. They are faced with the fear and suspicion they had suspected, but refused to accept.
The most predictable attribute of autism is unpredictability. Children with autism look “normal,” but their behaviour is perplexing and difficult. The most critical aspect of autism is difficulty with sensory integration. Everyday sounds, sights, smells and touch, which are so normal for others, could be downright painful to autistic people. A trip to the supermarket or attending a birthday party could be a nightmare.
Their hyper-acute senses of smell, hearing and touch make it difficult for them to filter out irrelevant information. The ring of the cash register, the creaking wheels of a cart, a baby’s wailing, the mobile ringing, the unpleasant odour of fish or even of passers by, can be a terrifying experience for children with autism. They also have difficulty with boundaries: space seems to change, making it difficult for them to make sense of things around them.
People with autism are regarded as “concrete thinkers.” Receptive and expressive language is a challenge. Ellen Notbohm, in her book Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, puts it in a very interesting way: “Don’t tell me something is a ‘piece of cake’ when there is no dessert in sight and what you really mean is that this will be easy for you to do.” When you say, ‘Jamie really burned up the track,’ I see a kid playing with matches. Please just tell me ‘Jamie ran very fast.’ ”
Autistic people are visually-oriented and have a limited vocabulary. Less than 50 per cent of children with autism develop functional language. Those who do, actually memorise language they hear and repeat words in situations they find relevant. This is known as echolalia. This is why one comes across high-functioning children and adults with autism rattling words, sentences and phrases beyond their developmental age.
A perplexing aspect of autistic people is a fixation with objects, activities and routines. In his documentary Rage for Order, Oliver Sacks, the author of Anthropologist from Mars, describes autism as being characterised by what he calls mental loneliness: people with autism have no eye contact, rarely speak and, in extreme cases, are emotionally impenetrable. He met kids with fixation with numbers, electrical outlets, etc.; the precision and dexterity with which they involved themselves in these complex functions was intriguing.
Dr Sacks is of the opinion that autism is not simply a disorder; it is very deep-rooted, a mystery, an obsession inexplicable. He mentions Jessica Parks who could not write but expressed herself through complex drawings of the sun, with different rays, shades, textures and colours to express “good, bad and superior days.”
I have come across a number of parents who wait for the day when their children will “grow out” of it. They torment not only themselves but also make their children suffer, forcing them into situations that lead to sensory overloads, which result in aggression, self-abuse and tantrums. Perhaps the parents do it out of fear or denial, but by doing so they drive their children further away from independence.
It is these parents who are easy prey to fake practitioners who hold out the hope that “everything will be okay.” In doing so, they camouflage the fact that autism is a lifelong condition. While this doesn’t mean an end to creativity, it certainly requires scientific understanding of autism’s basic elements if one is to help autistic people in their journey towards an independent adulthood.
I did not choose to have autism. But remember that it is happening to me, not you. Without your support, my chances of successful, self-reliant adulthood are slim. With your support and guidance, the possibilities are broader than you might think. I promise you – I am worth it.
(From Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew.)
The writer is a speech therapist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News