Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex disorder of the central nervous system, which often first appears as delayed speech in children around 18 months of age. The disorder exists at birth and can usually be reliably diagnosed by the time the child is three years old.
Autism is one type of ASD that appears in early childhood — usually before age three. About 15 to 20 children in every 10,000 children are autistic. Boys are up to four times more likely to develop autism than girls.
Children with ASD develop normally into adults. However, they continue to have impaired social communication, interaction and fondness for repetitive actions. How the child turns out is usually determined by his or her cognitive and social abilities.
About 70% of children with ASD are mentally retarded, with most requiring supervision at home and work. They enjoy a normal life expectancy, although some will have residual psychological problems (anxiety and depression) or seizures.
Autism may improve with appropriate education and therapy or as the child matures. Some eventually lead normal or near-normal lives, although they continue to show some social awkwardness.
In most cases, no cause can be identified. Genetics play an important role, although autism may occur with age, education and social environment. Importantly, parenting styles are NOT responsible. There is also no evidence that vaccines cause autism.
There is no known cure for autism. With appropriate education and support, children with ASD can develop their communication and interaction skills to become independent adults and lead productive lives. Therapies do NOT cure autism, although they bring about marked improvement.
Medication may help reduce self-injurious behaviour or associated conditions such as epilepsy. Alternative treatments such as dietary, herbal or vitamin remedies have been shown to be ineffective in controlled studies.
ASD is diagnosed when the child has impaired communication, social interaction and show repetitive behaviours.
They may have delayed speech and language skills; or they start speaking early but with unusual language development, odd intonation (like an American-sounding child in a Mandarin-speaking family) or are obsessed with certain topics. They are also not good at starting a conversation with people.
They can be oblivious to the people around them and don’t make eye contact. More often than not, they are interested in playing alone, with specific things that interest them such as trains (read about trains, play with trains and everything about trains). They may be interested to play with peers but don’t know how. So they become disruptive, rowdy or may hit others in order to get their attention. They lack imagination in their play or become rote with specific scenes and have difficulty with pretend or role-play.
They have specific repetitive behaviours such as running in circles, lining things in rows, spinning or spot jumping especially when unoccupied, bored, unhappy or upset. They can become rote in routines such as specific seats, routes and schedules. So they may not adapt well to changes in the environment or schedules. They may also be sensitive to certain stimuli such as sound, fixated with certain textures and intolerant to touch. Educational or behaviour therapy develops an autistic child’s social and language skills through highly structured and customised training. Some of these therapies include:
Structured Teaching (TEACCH Program)
The emphasis of the programme is using skills that the children already possess and helping them to live independently and take part in community activities. The children learn to perform tasks at special workstations with the help of schedules and visual cues.
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
This is best used for those who either does not speak properly or are unable to communicate using words. It starts with teaching the child to ask spontaneously for items or activities. This helps the child gain greater spontaneity, persistence and generalisation.
Social Stories (Carol Gray)
This teaches children desirable behaviour through specific stories with themes important to the child’s life. It involves writing, reading and talking about the stories to the child prior to the event or activity.
Sensory Integration Therapy
The child may have problems with sensory modulation, which means the child either over- or under-reacts to sensations. Sensory Integration will help the child to process facts at successive levels, using various methods such as a sensory diet, deep pressure and brushing.
In Singapore, such customised training programs are provided by several agencies including,
See a developmental paediatrician if your child
The paediatrician will arrange for the needed checks and advise appropriate management and school placement. This is important to maximise potential for development in your child. Your child will also be monitored over the years.