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Monday, 12 November 2012 14:24

Autism a mysterious handicap

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Autism is a disorder of neural development characterised by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and reputitive behaviour. Around 60 million children suffer from this disorder worldwide. In Mauritius, a lack of adequate support for people with autism is deplored. Explik U K Santé on Radio Plus shed some light on this mysterious handicap.
Autism is also described as autistic disorder in childhood impairment, the onset of which is often noticed just below age of 3 years. It was first identified as a disorder in the year 1943, and was differentiated from schizophrenia only in 1971. Prior to that, these two abnormal conditions were deemed to belong to the same category only to conclude that autism is a separate disorder altogether.

“Autism can be noticed very early, from the age of 3. We observe that the infant is different and that his development is different from others. Moreover, when the infant grows up, his human relation is dissimilar and it is difficult for him to have a social life. The first signs are frequent from the very first year of the babyhood and educating the child becomes complicated,” says Dr Vivian Jean Marc Michel.

He adds that autism is not a disease: “it is a social phenomenon present in many countries and parents pressurise the government for help. It is good to note that autism is not a disease but a handicap. In many countries, one in 100 children is affected by autism. In Mauritius, the number is on the rise though no exact figure is available. We have trained people to look after them but unfortunately, we do not have special schools for them.”

Autism affects the way the brain processes information by modifying the network of neurons during the development (the process is still unknown and researches are still ongoing and active in this field).

Dr Tangeneer Mungur, pediatric consultant at Nehru Hospital in Rose Belle, adds that the symptoms can be easily identified: “a diagnostic as early as possible is advised. Mauritian pediatricians are aware of this phenomenon which is on the rise. The symptoms are easily identified since the child will show a social shortfall, communications problem, and will be obsessed by only one activity as well as repetitive disorders. Moreover, the child is tensed in class. He can be aggressive, while sometimes be can be irritated, nervous, or he can end up crying,” he says.

Géraldine Aliphon, co-founder of Association d’Autisme Mauricienne, hopes for a better collaboration with the Ministry of Health. “In Mauritius, children with autism have no specific institutions while abroad, there are many specialised institutions. Our association brings together parents who have children with autism. The Ministry of Health helps us but parents’ opine for more consideration. We hope for a better collaboration,” she states.

Signs and symptoms
Most parents of autistic children suspect that something is wrong by the time the child is 24 months old. Children with autism typically have difficulties in play acting, social interactions and verbal and non verbal communication.
Some children with autism appear normal before age 1 or 2 and then suddenly “regress” and lose language or social skills they had previously gained. This is called the regressive type of autism.
An early behavioural and cognitive treatment program can help improve the outlook for most young children with autism. Though no remedy is known yet, children have been treated out of autism.

Centres across the island
Dr Vivian Jean Marc Michel states that, after three meetings at the Ministry, the officers have announced the construction of multidisciplinary centres across the island soon. Moreover, a specialised team will be set up to provide support to the children and their families.

Treatment in hospital
Dr Tangeneer Mungur explains that in hospitals, several treatments are available to support the child: “Firstly, there is a follow-up on the child’s behaviour, his education, and finally we prescribe medicines. Besides, there are several therapies which they can follow.”

Confined to himself
A child with autism is someone confined to himself. The signs and symptoms vary from one child to another but in general, a child with autism is someone with whom we cannot interact.
People with autism may be overly sensitive in sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste (for example, they may refuse to wear “itchy” clothes and become distressed if they are forced to wear the clothes), have unusual distress when routines are changed, perform repeated body movements, show unusual attachments to objects.

The symptoms may vary from moderate to severe.
Communication problems: cannot start or maintain a social conversation, communicates with gestures instead of words, develops language slowly or not at all, does not adjust gaze to look at objects that others are looking at, does not refer to self correctly (for example, says “you want water” when the child means “I want water”), does not point to direct others’ attention to objects (occurs in the first 14 months of life), repeats words or memorised passages, such as commercials.

Social interaction: does not make friends, does not play interactive games, is withdrawn, may not respond to eye contact or smiles, or may avoid eye contact, may treat others as if they are objects, prefers to spend time alone, rather than with others, shows a lack of empathy.

Response to sensory information: does not startle at loud noises, has heightened or low senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste, may find normal noises painful and hold hands over ears, may withdraw from physical contact because it is over-stimulating or overwhelming, rubs surfaces, mouths or licks objects, seems to have a heightened or low response to pain.

Play: doesn’t imitate the actions of others, prefers solitary or ritualistic play, shows little pretend or imaginative play.

Behaviours: “acts up” with intense tantrums, gets stuck on a single topic or task (perseveration), has a short attention span, has very narrow interests, is overactive or very passive, shows aggression towards others or self, shows a strong need for sameness, uses repetitive body movements.
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