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What is autism and why is it perceived negatively?

Researcher & Writer: Ruka ARAKAKI

Illustrator: Shail PATEL


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a broad range of conditions that can cause challenges with social interactions, behaviour, speech, and nonverbal communication. Autism can be diagnosed at any age, however it is often distinguished as a “developmental disorder”, as symptoms typically appear during the first two years of life. Since autism is a spectrum disorder, there are many subtypes of autism and each person has different strengths and weaknesses. Genetic and environmental factors mainly influence the disorder, such environmental factors include, advanced parental age of conception, prenatal exposure to pollution and pesticides, maternal obesity, extreme prematurity (etc). As some of these factors influence the development of autism, other sensory sensitivities and medical issues accompany the disorder such as gastrointestinal disorders, seizures, sleep disorders, and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and attention issues.


The signs and symptoms of ASD

People with ASD struggle with social communication, interaction, and behaviour. Below are social behaviours one may present:

  • Making limited eye contact

  • Rarely sharing interests and showing interest in activities

  • Not responsive to verbal aids for attention (e.g. when one’s name is called)

  • Difficulty in participating in a back-and-forth conversation

  • Displays facial expressions that do not match what is being said

  • Having difficulty understanding others' points of view

  • Repeating words or phrases

  • Getting upset by slight changes in a routine

  • Being more sensitive to sensory input such as light, sound, clothing, or temperature


How is ASD diagnosed?

ASD can usually be diagnosed from the early age of two years old. Healthcare providers diagnose it by evaluating a person’s behaviour and development. It is crucial to get an evaluation as soon as possible. Once ASD is diagnosed, treatments and services can begin. In young children, diagnosis is a two-stage process.


The first stage is the general developmental screening. All children should have developmental delays screened at their 9-, 18-, 24- or 30-month well-child visits, with additional autism tests at the 18- and 24-month appointments, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A child may receive additional checkups if they are at a higher risk for ASD or developmental problems. Children at high risk include those having a family member with ASD, presenting behaviours linked to ASD, having older parents, having certain genetic conditions, or those who were born at very low birth weight. The healthcare provider or the paediatrician may ask questions about the child’s behaviour and use the answers in combination with information from ASD screening tools and clinical observations of the child.


The second stage calls for additional diagnostic evaluations. A team of experienced healthcare providers will conduct the diagnostic evaluation. The evaluation typically includes:

  • Neurological and medical tests

  • Evaluation of the child's cognitive skills

  • The language skills of the child are evaluated

  • Behaviour analysis of the child

  • A thorough discussion of the child's behaviour and growth with the child's caretakers

  • Evaluation of age-appropriate abilities required for autonomous performance of daily tasks like eating, dressing, and using the restroom

Caregivers and teachers are usually the first to notice ASD symptoms in older children and adolescents. The school's special education might perform an evaluation with their healthcare provider who specialises in ASD. Caregivers may talk with healthcare providers about their child’s social or behavioural difficulties. Older children may have difficulties understanding figures of speech, sarcasm, humour, and forming relationships with others.


The stigma associated with ASD

Among many cultures, autism is viewed as a source of disappointment, annoyance, and shame. Research shows that this social stigma may prevent families from seeking an evaluation and engaging with services for their children, in order for them to have the same lifestyle as those without ASD. Researchers state that autism presents unique characteristics allowing an uproar of rejection by the public. Autism may include behaviours that society views as “uncomfortable”, “frightening” or “unusual”. Those with ASD may hit, yell or hurt themselves which may violate the personal space of others, and disobey social conventions. A study of children on the spectrum showed that 75 percent were excluded from activities by their peers either frequently or sometimes. Approximately 13 percent were physically bullied and 37 percent were teased some of the time. The study showed a correlation between those who present more behaviours and exclusion. It showed that the more behaviours one shows, the more isolated the families felt from friends, relatives, and social activities. Statistics from the study show that 32 percent of families were excluded from social events and 40 percent isolated themselves from friends and family.

How can we break the stigma

Spreading awareness about ASD and active communication about it should be encouraged especially around parents to ensure their child’s best interests. Educating others would also heavily impact how others view ASD. People may have misconceptions about the disorder, for example, some believe that ASD is a product of failed abortion or that autistic children do not emphasise with others. Getting as much information from healthcare providers and paediatricians will also help enrich our own understanding of the disorder allowing us to provide as much reliable information as possible. Offering support especially with social media now shows compassion and can help reach out to others with ASD. Understanding what they may be going through can help them feel less isolated and more encouraged. Showing support for those with ASD and giving the right information to others will help the community view the disorder in a less negative manner. This can be done through spreading awareness online or volunteering with an autism centre.


Bibliography


What is autism? Autism Speaks. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Autism. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/autism/index.cfm

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Autism spectrum disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd

The stigma of autism: When everyone is staring at you. SPARK for Autism. (2022, April 5). Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://sparkforautism.org/discover_article/stigma-autism/#:~:text=Around%20the%20world%2C%20many%20societies,disappointment%2C%20annoyance%2C%20or%20shame.

Ali, M. F. (2020, March 29). Breaking the stigma around ASD: Autism center in Dubai: Pulse TLC. Blogs | Pulse Learning & Therapy Center in Dubai, UAE. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://pulsecenter.ae/our-blog/the-know-how-to-break-through-the-stigma-surrounding-asd/


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