By: Adline A. Ghani
Most parents with an autistic child only find out about their child’s condition quite some time after he or she is born. This is because signs of the condition only start to appear very gradually, in the first few years of the child’s life.
Finding out that your child has autism is both shocking and life changing and parents are often besieged by queries and concerns.
Definition of autism
According to Jessica, “Individuals with autism or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are those with disruption of developmental processes that often begins in the first two years of life.” She adds that the disruption of the developmental process will often lead to impairment in skills such as language, communication, social, play, cognitive, gross or fine motor and adaptive functioning.
Jessica adds that, “Not all impairment features are present in every child. Hence, the word ‘spectrum’ is often used to describe autism. At the least severe end of this spectrum, is Asperger Syndrome, while ASD is placed under the big umbrella of one of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD).”
Jessica also states that while some children with autism have normal intelligence with relation to other children their age, some may also display extraordinary ability in a specific skill or special talent. “These children are also known as savants,” Jessica explains.
One of the most challenging aspects of raising an autistic child is also the most crucial — communication. “Due to the impairment of the communication domain, it is very common to see a delay or total lack of verbal speech amongst children with ASD,” says Jessica. “These children will often opt for alternative modes of communication such as making hand gestures.”
For some children with ASD, who have limited or adequate speech, Jessica says, “You will be able to witness marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain conversation with others.” As a result of this, Jessica explains that these children tend to develop stereotyped and repetitive use of language, which is often used out of context. “Thus, they are often misunderstood.”
When paired with the impairment of cognitive, language and adaptive functioning skills, Jessica explains that it is often difficult for some autistic children to understand complex instructions or sentences. “They will often pay attention to or are unable to accept certain parts of the language or instruction that we use in daily conversations.”
As such, Jessica points out that it is very important to communicate properly by understanding the child’s level of impairment and to cater to their needs and deficits.
Jessica stresses that this is the very least that we can do when we are first trying to get to know an autistic child, particularly one who has not had the chance to attend any form of therapy.
According to Jessica, in children with ASD who have severe impairment of communication, cognitive, and language skills the most reliable communication method is sign-language, which is more specifically known in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) teachings as Picture-Exchange-Communication (PECS) and Words-Exchange-Communication System (WECS).
In line with the Information Age and the rise of mobile gadgets, Jessica says, “PECS and WECS have been digitalised into applications for gadgets (like tablets and mobile phones). These are designed to be user-friendly tools to help individuals with ASD to communicate.” However, Jessica is quick to add that sign-language does have its limitations. “This is because languages are different across countries, and therefore some signs are not universal.”
The good news is that autistic children with limited or adequate speech can be taught the benefits of initiating and sustaining conversations. In addition these children can also be taught the basics of social interactions and social awareness.
It is important for people with ASD to learn social skills because these skills serve as important guidelines for normal communication. “This is especially true in using and understanding non-verbal behaviours like eye-to-eye contact, facial expressions, body postures and gestures as forms of communication,” explains Jessica.
Advice for Parents
There is no doubt that learning to communicate with an autistic child, as well as helping the child to overcome communication impairments, will be a long, hard journey not just for Mum and Dad but for the whole family too.
However, Jessica says that it doesn’t have to be all about hard work and struggle. “You can still enjoy the journey of discovery along with your child and a little empathy definitely goes a long way.”
As a final piece of advice, Jessica says, “If possible, allow your children to start therapy at a very young age so you can help them to increase the possibility of overcoming their communication issues as they get older.
In addition, parents must also try to learn as much as they can about their child’s condition because it is often easier to deal with a problem or issue when you have an idea of why your child behaves in a particular way.
“I am simply a professional who works with a population of children with ASD, and I do not pretend to know what it’s like to live with a child with ASD,” confesses Jessica, who holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Management and has worked with people with ASD for 8 years.
However, she goes on to explain that in her years of experience she has always found it enjoyable and rewarding to work with people with ASD as each individual is precious and unique.
“Each and every one of them strives to live in their own way just like all of us do,” reveals Jessica. “There may be hiccups along the way, but at the end of the day, what you experience and learn is a lifelong lesson. Sometimes, children with ASD can be our best teachers, as long as we are willing to open our hearts to them.”
Symptoms of autism in children
Although symptoms of autism vary greatly in type and severity, there are several core symptoms to look out for:
• Developmental problems in non-verbal communication skills, like eye contact, facial expressions and body posture.
• Inability to establish friendships with children of the same age.
• Lack of interest in sharing enjoyment, interests or achievements with others.
• Lack of empathy and difficulty in understanding another person’s feelings.
• Delay in learning to speak or being unable to speak.
• Problems with initiating and sustaining a conversation.
• The repetitive use of certain words and phrases.
• Body rocking and hand flapping.
• Unusual focus on something random, for example, the wheels on a toy car.
• Limited interest in activities or play.
• Need for routines and repetition of routines.
• Interpreting communication word for word and failing to grasp implied meanings.