April is Autism Awareness Month.
The world has been “aware” of autism for hundreds of years, with the earliest, well-documented example from a court case in 1747. Though the collection of familiar symptoms was not labeled autism, nevertheless, court records provide such a detailed record of the behavior of the man in question that there is little doubt amongst forensic researchers that he suffered from autism.
The word autism is derived from the Greek word autos meaning “self” and in its original context, was used to mean a morbid absorption with self; the withdrawal of the individual into an internal world, refusing or rejecting external influence or disturbance. In 1938 Hans Asperger first described what later came to be called Asperger Syndrome, and in 1943, Leo Kanner first used the term infantile autism to describe the symptoms of 11 pediatric patients with similar behavior characteristics. Autism is not new.
Autism happens along a continuum of severity. People with autism may be completely withdrawn from the world around them, with very little independent function and a collection of behaviors which can be very difficult to manage but on the other end of the spectrum are disorders formerly labeled High Functioning Autism, which include Asperger Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.
A pattern of symptoms rather than one single symptom, autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that generally becomes evident as a child fails to meet the normal developmental milestones of childhood, or in some cases, begins to lose milestones already mastered. This disorder is characterized by lack of eye contact, avoidance of, or non-response to, external stimuli, repetitious movements (such as rocking, banging, hand flapping etc.), little or no language development, and in most cases, cognitive deficits. Asperger Syndrome shares many of these characteristics in varying degrees, but its distinguishing features are appropriate/advanced language development and at least normal IQ (85 – 115). Hans Asperger called his young patients “little professors” and believed that an IQ above normal was a part of the overall pattern with this condition. Additionally, children with Asperger Syndrome tend to fixate on particular interests (dinosaurs, weather, numbers, etc.) and to struggle socially because they misread or miss social cues and may have odd or awkward speech patterns. Each child falling on the autism spectrum is unique in the ways in which s/he is impacted by the disorder. As many parents contend, “if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.”
Diagnosis is vital, and this must be made by qualified, trained psychologists, developmental pediatricians, or psychiatrists experienced with childhood disorders. If you are concerned about your child’s development, it does no harm to have your baby assessed. Ask questions of the professionals you may see. Ask about their training and experience with autism and pervasive developmental delays. Find out what assessments will be used and what the process involves to make a determination about your child.
As a guideline, any assessment for a childhood disorder should at a minimum include a structured developmental history done with the parents; information collected from additional sources, i.e., school, family, pediatrician; and a formal, standardized assessment of the child which will include several hours of contact time between the assessor and the child. The professional may also ask to observe your child at home or ask that you record your child’s behavior at home, and may also ask your permission to observe the child in school. It’s vital for parents to understand that an assessment for Autism Spectrum Disorder must follow standardized, professional protocols or the diagnosis is not valid. There are other reasons why children may have autistic-like behaviors but who don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Once a diagnosis has been made, appropriate consistent intervention is the next step. In fact, early intervention is the key to maximizing the potential of a child with any developmental delays. The earlier the better. Kuwait has enjoyed an explosion of resources in the past five years, which is wonderful, but there is need for more. The professional who provides the diagnosis should also be able to answer your questions about Autism Spectrum Disorder, help guide you to the community resources for therapy and to an appropriate educational setting if required.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Take the time to raise your own awareness of the appropriate stages of a child’s development. It’s a worthwhile effort.
Susannah J. Schuilenberg, PsyD, MA, MREd, RPC, MPCP, ACS is a Clinical Coordinator & Supervising Psychologist at Soor Center for Professional Therapy & Assessment. For more information, please call 2290 1677, visit www.soorcenter.com or follow their Tweets @SoorCenterQ8.