(Vaishnavi S, BASLP, M.Sc is a Speech Language Pathologist and the Founder of Andhaadhi Rehab, an online consultancy and teletherapy center.)
With the World Autism Awareness Day being celebrated in the month of April, there is no better time to talk about this and clear misconceptions. It has been 7.5 years since I entered this field and now, I can’t imagine myself being anything else other than a Speech Language Pathologist. I wanted to do something that I enjoyed, as well as something purposeful for the community; and there has been no looking back ever since.
What is Autism?
Diving right into the topic, autism is a neuro-divergent disorder. Its key features are that an autistic individual will have difficulty with social communication, pragmatic skills, understanding other person’s emotions or expressing their emotions verbally. He/she will also have repetitive stereotypic and self-stimulatory behavior – in simple outlook, the individual may perform certain uncommon behaviour or noises in repetition – like flapping of hands, pacing back and forth or rocking their body; however, these symptoms are very subjective and may completely differ from one individual to another.
Early identification and early intervention can change the whole game. Most autistic children will need a combination of Speech and Occupational therapy for their improvement. However, I would strongly recommend not to self-diagnose – any questions must be answered by a professional, either a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist or clinical psychologist.
To be in the spectrum of diagnosis, the child must be at least 5 years old, but even from the early years, we can see a lot of features and behaviour and tell whether the child is at a risk of developing autism disorder. Hence, I would strongly recommend yearly or every 6 months screening for a child since birth to get a professional opinion – it’s not too much to ask for: how we chart height, weight and head circumference or list the vaccinations done, likewise, please get a speech and language testing done and check if a child’s receptive and expressive language is appropriate to his/her age.
But again, I would strongly recommend a professional opinion only, parents should never come to a self-derived conclusion if any such behaviour is observed. Many over-read or use Dr Google; some may even go to forums where people share their own opinions, thus confirming their assumptions without a doctor’s expertise. There are several blogs and videos on YouTube which are not posted by professionals, but rather, by students or parents of an autistic child. I am not concluding that those pieces are wrong, but they are nothing more than sharing their experience, which cannot be generalized with everybody.
The Parental Experience
Dealing with parents of children with this disorder is another page. Most parents come with questions like, “Is my child normal?” “Does he have autism?”. Terms like ‘abnormal’ or ‘autism’ are those that a parent never wants to hear; it scares them. Hence, many families end up coming to us late, thereby failing to give their child early treatment. Societal fear is another stigma in the Indian society – people are there to talk and comment on every other issue, but their judgmental looks must never hinder an autistic parenthood journey. What is needed for the child’s health and future needs to be done irrespective of the typical critical extended-familial talks.
And if the parents are having any type of acceptance issues, blaming oneself, facing depression or feeling really low about their child’s condition, they must definitely consider attending counselling for themselves from a counselling psychologist.
Autism is a journey: one cannot completely overcome it. However, professional guidance will help the child and parent to walk through the journey. At the end of the day, the goal must be that an autistic child must be independently functional, able to communicate needs, make a social circle and must be able to take care of his/her own life. This is definitely doable, because autism doesn’t affect the cognitive development – provided it is diagnosed early and given appropriate treatment.
Another misconception about autism is that it is inherently a modern disease. To the contrary, it is not something new that has emerged only now, it has been there since ages. It’s just that with lifestyle changes and modifications, there is an increase in the number of autistic children, and more clarity in diagnosis of such conditions has given rise to awareness. It is true that one cannot grow out of autism or get cured, unlike some other diseases. Autism will remain a companion for life. But with proper treatment, persons with autism can live fully and be able to work, have a family or live a quality life. Autism, thus, is not a death sentence or a sign that there is no possibility of happiness or success in the future. It is something that ought to be addressed, dealt with, and given support.