One in 150 children in Singapore has autism, a higher rate than the World Health Organization’s global figure of one in 160 children, a report in 2016 claims. If you are reading this and you suspect that your little one has autism, here’s what you need to know about it and what you can do.
What is autism?
Autism is a complex neurobehavioral condition that includes impairments in social interaction, developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviours. It appears in infancy and early childhood which causes delays in many basic areas of development, such as learning to talk, play and interact with others. It is a wide spectrum, some children diagnosed have only mild impairments, while others deal with problems that are more serious.
However, doctors, parents and experts all agree that early and intensive intervention helps and it can make a world of a difference.
While autism is a lifelong condition, all children and adults benefit from interventions, or therapies that can reduce symptoms and increase abilities and skills.
Signs and symptoms in babies and toddlers
Typically, developing infants are inquisitive and social by nature. They will gaze at faces, respond to voices and sounds, grasp a finger or smile. On the contrary, babies who are autistic have difficulty engaging in social interactions.
This can come in symptoms like: not making eye contact or looking at you when he is being fed, responding to his own name, does not follow objects visually or follow your gesture when you point things out, point or wave goodbye, imitate your movements, facial expressions or play with other people or share interest and enjoyment. They may also fail to respond to your anger or affection in typical ways (showing fear, or showing affection back).
There are also developmental red flags to watch out for:
- By 6 months: no big smiles or warm, joyful expressions
- By 9 months: no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions
- By 12 months: lack of response to name, no back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, waving, or reaching
- By 16 months: no spoken words
- By 24 months: no meaningful two-word phrases that do not involve imitating
Should you notice these red flags, do consult your child’s pediatrician immediately for an evaluation.
Signs and symptoms in older children
Socially, an autistic child will experience difficulties interpreting gestures and facial expressions, hence the social world can seem bewildering. Many persons with autism have difficulty seeing things from another person’s perspectives, and this in turn, interferes with the ability to predict or understand another person’s actions.
A child with autism may appear disinterested or unaware of their environment and its happenings; he will not know how to connect with others or make friends, prefers to not be touched, held or cuddled, does not seem to hear when others talk to him and does not engage in group games or use toys in a creative way. In many ways, they seem aloof and detached because social interactions can be difficult for them.
Communication difficulties are also a symptom. When language develops, a person with autism may use speech in unusual ways. Some may have difficulty forming sentences, and would repeat single words or a phrase multiple times. Mildly affected children exhibit only slight delays in language and can develop precocious language and unusually large vocabularies, but find it hard to sustain a conversation. Some may also go on and on about a certain subject, disallowing others to speak. In short, the usual “give-and-take” in a conversation is absent, or proves difficult.
Symptoms include avoiding eye contact, using facial expressions that do not match what he is saying, inability to pick up other’s tone of voice, being especially sensitive to loud noises, and abnormal posture or clumsiness (like walking exclusively on tiptoe).
Repetitive, rigid behaviours
Unusual repetitive behaviors and/or a tendency to engage in a restricted range of activities are another core symptom of autism. For example, he follows a rigid routine (such as insisting on taking the same route to school every day), has difficulty adapting to changes in schedules and environment, unusual attachment to toys or objects and spending long periods watching moving objects like the ceiling fan.
Persons with autism will need extreme consistency in their daily routines, and any form of changes is highly stressful and may lead to outbursts.
Prenatal factors that can possibly contribute to autism are:
- Taking antidepressants during pregnancy (especially in the first three months)
- Nutritional deficiencies, particularly insufficient folic acid
- Age of mom and dad
- Complications at or shortly after birth, including low birth weight and neonatal anemia
- Maternal infections during pregnancy
- Exposure to chemical pollutants like metals and pesticides
What to do if you are worried?
If you suspect that your child may be hitting certain development red flags, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician right away. In fact, all babies should be routinely screened for their development and a screening to check that they are hitting their developmental milestones.
Schedule an autism screening.
Your pediatrician will able to screen for signs of autisms quickly with a set of specialized tools. It is straightforward and easy, and contains a list of yes-or-no questions or symptom checklist.
See a developmental specialist.
If your pediatrician detects signs of autism in your child, he may refer you to a specialist for a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. A screening is not a diagnosis, so a specialist will determine if your child has autism. However, most toddlers before 30 months of age cannot be diagnosed, there will be screening techniques that help determine when a cluster of symptoms associated with autism is present.
Seek early intervention.
As mentioned previously, early intervention makes a great difference in your child’s development. Ask your doctor for sources of early intervention services and seek help as soon as possible. Delaying it will not help your child, allowing more risks to be involved.