Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Early identification and intervention
Autism Spectrum Disorder is an umbrella term for a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect three areas, namely communication; relationships and interaction as well as behaviour and play.
There is no known cause for autism. The symptoms may range from mild to severe, hence the term “spectrum”. One person may display a different set of symptoms from another one with the same condition. For instance, one person with autism may be gifted in mathematics and/or music while socially impaired but another one may have fluent communication while having difficulties to learn new things.
The symptoms include:
No babbling and turn taking at 6-12 months;
No functional speech at 12+ months (e.g. “mama”, “daddy”, “teddy”, etc.);
No functional use of objects/toys;
Little or no eye contact;
No real fear of danger;
Poor learning skills or resistance to normal teaching methods;
Unusual responses to noises, lights, smells etc, e.g. covering of ears, eyes, dislike to being touched;
Crying or laughing for no apparent reason;
Self-injurious behaviour, e.g. head banging, scratching, biting, etc.
Autism may co-occur with other conditions such as intellectual disorders, learning disabilities and sensory disorders but it may also occur on its own. It is crucial for parents to get their children evaluated by a team of specialists as early as possible. Autism can be diagnosed at the age of 3 or even earlier by the paediatrician. The team of specialists includes pediatrician, occupational therapist, speech therapist and audiologist, psychologist, dietician, etc.
Treatment options will depend on the type and severity of autism that the child displays. It may consist of medication, speech therapy, occupational therapy, diet and lifestyle modification. The most important thing to remember is that it requires teamwork to deal with autism, not each member working in silos.
All team members, including parents/family members as primary caregivers and the child must be involved in the process of assessment and decision-making so that they can be informed. The first step would be to check the child’s Road To Health clinic booklet and ask the healthcare professionals questions if you are concerned about your child’s development as well as to take note of any behavior that may seem unusual at home.
PLACING A CHILD WITH ASD IN A SCHOOL SETTING
When considering a school there are varying issues that must be considered:
1. Bear in mind that it is not only the child’s education that is important, but how that school’s environment will affect the child emotionally on a day to day basis;
2. The teaching staff at the school must have a broad and sound knowledge of ASD;
3. The ethos and curriculum of the school must be able to accommodate and be sympathetic to a child with ASD;
4. Be wary of schools that have too many children in each class. A good ratio for a child with ASD is 6-8.
5. Ensure that there are open channels of communication between the parents and teachers and that the staff are willing to listen to the parent’s thoughts;
6. Be sure that the school can and will modify your child’s educational plan to accommodate the problems that can occur as a result of the Triad of Impairments;
7. Study the school policy as regards discipline for inappropriate behaviour;
8. Establish whether the classrooms are open plan, as this can cause great distraction for the child. It is preferable for children with ASD to have independent work stations with all their belongings close by;
9. Establish the availability of computer assisted learning and symbolic communication methods, should the need arise;
10. Be wary of a school where they have an overriding concern of treating all the children in the same way; this will not facilitate flexibility for your child’s needs;
11. Establish whether there will be the availability for your child to work with different age groups for different subjects;
12. If you struggle to find a school that can respond positively to the many questions as regards your child’s education, then establish how “open” they are to constructive guidance from teaching staff from the schools specifically for learners with ASD.
About the writer
Jwalane Martha Tshepe is a Speech-Language Therapist and Audiologist at the Department of Education and private sector. She is passionate about children with special needs in the rural areas where there is scarcity of resources and lack of access to information.
She has experience of working with early childhood intervention, school-age children and adults in the public health sector.
She works with other professionals to raise awareness and provide advocacy for people living with various conditions, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, learning disorders, stuttering, hearing loss.
She can be reached at 079 552 8843.