Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterised by lack of social and communication skills and presence of sensory concerns/stereotypies. As the prevalence is on a constant rise since few decades, it is one of the commonest neurodevelopmental disorders and has now been recognised as a disability by the Government of India.
Only a minority of them (around 8 percent) grow out of the diagnosis and for majority, it is a lifelong disorder. The prognostic factors are multiple and varied. It depends on the severity of the disorder, age of start of early intervention, presence of stereotypies, cognition of the child etc. For its awareness in the general population, April is described as Autism Awareness Month. So is the significance of Autism Pride Day on 18th, June. Multiple seminars, CMEs are organised in the public and private domains to spread the word about the disorder. It is important to know about this neurodevelopmental disorder as its early recognition and the start of early intervention has a lasting impact on the future of the child. The earlier it is picked up, the better the prognosis is. As the child has normal weight, height, intelligence (in 75 per cent of the child) and the only significant feature noticed is speech delay, other features like sensory phenomenon are often missed by the parents. They reach out to their doctor for speech delay or commonly go to an ENT for a hearing assessment. As pointing towards an object, eye contact, following of command, response to name, etc, which are other salient features of the disorder, are subtle, so it is difficult for the parent to keep a track of it in a small child.
Certain take-home message which a parent should have are:
1. Keep a track of your child developmental milestones as you keep a track of his height, weight. There are multiple apps that are available to track the milestones, also, they inform you about the red flags and when to reach out to a doctor for the same.
2. Keep your child away from screen time for at least first two years of life as these are important years for the enriched development of the child. It is proven that use of screen time in these crucial years can lead to speech delay, decrease cognition and behavioural disorders. In fact some of the parents use screen time as a medium to divert the attention of the child during feeding. This habit should be totally avoided.
3. Accept the diagnosis: It is studied that parent take 1 month to a year to accept the diagnosis. It is crucial that the parents should accept the diagnosis as early as possible as then only the next part of intervention will start. If there is a doubt about the diagnosis, it is always better to take a second opinion and consult the expert.
4. Join support group: It is difficult and overwhelming and most of the parents have the question, Why me? What next? This a natural reaction for any parent to do so. But to come out of it you should join the various support groups to find the way out. This is not the end of the world and the child do have a definite future.
5. Use complementary and alternative medicine in a limit: There are multiple treatment modalities that are there, and some may predict to provide a permanent cure for the disorder. Parent have to understand that importance of spending their time, money and energy in a direction which has been verified by science and have a logic to it.
So, the take-home message is even if a child has a tag of AUTISM, still he is a child. He requires the same love, affection and treatment which a neurotypical child needs, both from the parents and society. These children are the future of our society and they need to be nurtured with warmth and care to get the best from them.