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Understanding Autism

Neena Jacob

Autism is a term that is heard frequently nowadays. I asked Andre Velho, the Autism Interventionist at Sethu, to tell me about Autism.

Andre graduated in psychology from Goa in 2008. He moved to the UK for 4 years and got an MA degree in Autism and worked in the Autism Centre of a mainstream primary school. He now heads the autism programme at the centre and has supported over 600 children and their families. 

Me: How early can autism be detected in a child?

Andre: Autism is tricky to diagnose before 24 months but the warning signs are present as early as 12 months. Parents are in the best position to spot the earliest warning signs of autism. They know their child better than anyone and can observe behaviours and quirks that a doctor might not have the chance to see in a 15-minute visit. Parents should take action if they are concerned and trust their instincts, rather than wait and see.

Early signs of Autism:

Around 18 months – 4 years:

                Is late to or does not smile

                Lack of attachment towards the parent

                Does not seek comfort

                Prefers to be alone

                Has some repetitive actions such as flapping of hands, rocking or spinning

                Plays with toys with repeated actions like spinning the wheels of a car, lining up things, looking at     toys from different angles

                Does not point, clap or wave

                Does not respond when others try to communicate

                Has difficulty in toilet training

                Repeats what is being said

                Has delayed language

Me: Do all children with autism have the same difficulties?

Andre: All people with autism have difficulties with social communication and social interaction. However, it is a spectrum disorder which means that there is a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. Every person with autism has a unique pattern of behaviour, a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Some people may require a lot of support in their daily lives, while others may need less support. However, all children with the right support can grow, develop, be happy and lead a meaningful live.

Me: Is autism ‘curable’?

Andre: Autism is not an illness or a disease and therefore does not require a cure like the flu. Autism affects different people in different ways and so it is difficult to assume how a person with autism will develop over time. Do not focus on prevention and curing autism, because it is my belief that people with autism have as equal a right to life as anyone and I value and respect diversity. We should not wish for people with autism to be given treatment to conform to the majority.

Me: What is your role as an autism interventionist?

Andre: My primary role is to provide behavioural interventions to children with autism. But autism is a challenging diagnosis and hence I focus a lot on helping their loved one’s cope with, live with, learn about and confidently support them at home and in society. I conduct assessments, create individualised intervention plans that are tailored to the needs of each child, carry out these treatment plans and evaluate the child’s progress. I work with an interdisciplinary team of other specialists to provide comprehensive care to children. My role requires a lot of patience, dedication and compassion that stems from a deep desire to help people with autism and all those who care for them. I enjoy interacting with the children and get a huge sense of fulfilment from my work.

Me: What are some of the common myths about autism?

Andre: Myth 1. People with autism cannot have meaningful relationships

Fact: As long as people without autism are sensitive to the differences and difficulties that autism present, people with autism can have genuine and long lasting social relationships.

Myth 2. People with autism are stupid.

Fact: Autism is a developmental, not an intellectual disability. Like everyone else, they are a mixed bunch and some are brighter than others.

So in conclusion, I am sure you will agree that these children and their parents need our support and understanding. You can befriend a family in your circle that has a child with autism. Let your child try and build a bond with him/her. See if you can have the child over for a while, so that the child gets to interact with another child his/her own age and the parents get time to do other chores. Over the years as an educationist I have found these parents to be so grateful and affectionate, keeping me informed about their children’s achievements even showing their children my photograph after they move on so that I am not forgotten! Remember we must respect the diversity in nature and accept these children for who they are.

(Writer is a volunteer in local schools and

a trustee with Sethu)

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