Autism -- What You Need To Know

April 02, 2020

Dr Sharifah Aida Alhabshi is a pediatrician at Columbia Asia Hospital – Petaling Jaya with a special interest in child-learning difficulties and child psychology. In conjunction with World Autism Day, we speak to her about the basics of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
How would you describe autism?
Autism, also termed ASD for A utism Spectrum Disorder , is a condition whereby there is a breakdown in communication regardless of mediums, namely words, facial expressions or gestures. While a non- autistic child can receive, process and understand information, the autistic child struggles to understand simple concepts. This is because the brain of an autistic child experiences delays when processing information. Clearly, ASD is a delicate and complex condition. Not only is it challenging for the autistic child to understand others but it is just as challenging for others to understand the child.
At the onset, what are signs that indicate an autistic child or infant?
Early signs include displaying reluctance to make eye contact, non-responsive when someone calls his or her name, inability to share focus with another individual, lacking skills in pretend/imitation play and struggling with non-verbal communication. Other signs can include hyperactivity, impulsiveness and aggressiveness. However, many new parents tend to think that these behaviours are the norm among young children and thus, would not consider it to be any cause for concern.
How early can autism be diagnosed in children?
Signs of autism can be seen when the child is as young as 12 to 16 months. Healthcare experts who are trained in this field will recognize the signs even earlier. However, for parents who are not aware of the subject of ASD, they will not recognize these signs. They will only suspect something is amiss when their child does start speaking when other toddlers have started speaking. This usually happens when the child is around three-years old and older which explains why most autistic children go undiagnosed until after the age of three.

What are some of the behaviors and characteristics that the autistic child displays?
Autism comes in many degrees. On one spectrum, some autistic children are not able to make themselves comprehensible to others and will need constant monitoring and care. On the other spectrum, some autistic children are able to care for themselves and grow into adults who are self-reliant to the point of gaining employment.

Although the brain is slow in responding to information, the senses are heightened more than the average person’s. They may have skills that develop unevenly. For example, they could have trouble communicating but be unusually good at memorizing dialogues or painting.

Also because of these same heightened senses, sounds that are normal to us like the whirring of a fan for instance, may be processed as a piercing scream to the autistic child. How do we react when we hear a piercing scream? We may become distressed, confused, curious and defensive. For the autistic child, all that is manifested into tantrums and meltdowns. On the other hand, there are also autistic children whose character is overly friendly that they can just randomly hug a stranger.
In general, what are the basics of caring for a child who has ASD?
Set routines. Autistic children seem to be at ease when there are routines set in place. Don’t make sudden changes to their routines especially dietary changes as this can affect them physically and mentally.

Also, identify signals that are tuned in to his or her emotions. What are the triggers that cause him or her to react differently? What upsets them and what calms them down? When you have established these signals, you will create a nurturing environment for your child. A strong network of support is very important.

*If you suspect your child may be autistic, seek professional advice immediately. Early detection and intervention can result in better outcomes for you and your child.

Dr Sharifah Aida Alhabshi
Consultant Pediatrician
Columbia Asia Hospital – Petaling Jaya

MBChB(UK), M.Med(Pediatric)(UM)
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  This article first appeared in BabyTalk Malaysia.

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