World Autism Day: Paediatric experts encourage parents to seek medical advice to support children with autism
In support of this year’s World Autism Day, Consultant Paediatrician Dr Ngozi Oluonye from Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH) in London urges parents to seek medical advice for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to understand their child’s needs and provide guidance.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, as well as how they experience the world,” Dr Oluonye explains. “ASD used to be referred to as autism, but specialists believe the term ASD better reflects how this neurodevelopment disorder presents across different individuals. The reason that this is called a spectrum disorder is that there is a wide variability in how individuals present; not all children display every listed feature of autism. Although there is no cure for ASD, there are many things that can be done to make easier for the individual and the family.”
The prevalence of ASD in the GCC is estimated to be between 1.4 to 29 per 10,000 persons1. “There is ongoing research into the causes of Autism and many experts believe that the pattern of behaviour from which autism is diagnosed may not result from a single cause, and that there are genetic factors at play. We also know that there are some genetic or developmental conditions where Autism is more common. The causes of autism are still being investigated and it is felt likely that there are many different causes of ASD,” Dr Oluonye explains.
As a neurodevelopmental disorder, ASD may occur alongside other difficulties such as general developmental impairment; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); difficulties with motor coordination (clumsiness); sleep difficulties; challenging behaviour or a learning disability. This is not always the case – some individuals may have normal intelligence or have a specific area of skill or interest where they show above average intelligence.
Guidance indicates that assessment should be carried out within a multidisciplinary team, an approach taken at GOSH, which treats over 1500 patients from the Middle East every year. Teams may include paediatricians, psychologists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists.
Commenting on parents looking for the right schools for children with ASD, Dr Oluonye added, “If parents are worried about ASD, it is important that they seek medical advice from their GP first in order to be referred for a specialist assessment. Parents should seek information from their local professionals and be guided by them about school placements, as well as make time to speak with the professionals who will be teaching their child to ensure that the environment is right for their child. It also helps to visit the school first to prepare your child for the transition to a new, complex social environment.”
What parents should look out for:
“There are difficulties with communication. Many children with ASD have language difficulties which can range from delayed language development, whilst others develop language but then become silent and do not appear to use their words,” Dr Oluonye explains.
Other early signs can be when a child is heard to frequently repeat words or use learnt phrases for no apparent reason. For those who develop the use of language, they may be a limitation to how much they use this to communicate with others. Individuals with ASD may also interpret language very literally. For those who are better at communicating, they may not know when to speak or when to listen, and they may be selective in their attention.
“Individuals with ASD can vary in how socially interested they are,” Dr Oluonye describes. “Young children may appear to be happily occupied in a world of their own, but have no interest in what others are doing and have little response when other approach them, or indeed move away when approached.”
Typically developing children will look towards other people, however individuals with ASD may have limited use of eye contact and are less observant of people. They are less able to learn how to interpret how people use facial expression and body language to communicate; it also affects development of play skills.
Unusual patterns of Behaviour or Interests
Repetitive habits or movements may be observed e.g. hand flapping, spinning
There may be an insistence on things being carried out in a specific way and extreme distress can be shown at small changes to their routine
Distress may also be observed at times of change (transitions)
Obsessions may be seen relating to certain toys, people, activities, TV programmes
There may be preoccupations with unusual objects or subjects for their age
Some individuals with ASD can show unusual responses to sensory experiences in the environment