Common Traits of Autistic People

April 2, 2011-World Autism Awareness Day

A  serial on  Zee TV, ‘Aapki Antara’ that ran from 1 June 2009 till 18 February 2010 brought forth the problem of autism in a way that could be understood by  common people without  much knowledge of  medical science describing this condition known as ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD). ‘Aapki Antara’ is the story of five-year-old cute and adorable girl Antara,  born to Anuradha who had a relationship out of wedlock with Aditya. When Anuradha dies in a car accident, Antara is orphaned and it becomes the  responsibility of Aditya to take her home to his wife Vidya and son Abhishek and accept her as part of the family.

As Antara enters the family, things do not remain the same in the lives of Aditya and Vidya. Antara does not  behave like a normal child. She is unable not express emotions and lives in her own world. To the outside world she is a day dreamer and a slow child. During the course of time, Aditya discovers that Antara suffers from a condition called ‘autism’. He is  faced with a challenge to bring up his special child and get her accepted by the society. Through the story, the serial  guides people to understand the needs of people suffering from aautism condition and to deal with them sensitively.

World Autism Awareness Day:

Realising the seriousness of autism which is a developmental disability that affects the brain’s functions and such condition remains with a person for his or her whole life, the United Nations General Assembly has designated 2 April as  ‘World Autism Awareness Day’ since 2008.

World Autism Awareness Day is a global event involving the collective efforts of communities, NGOs and governments of all levels in society. It’s aim is  to increase people's awareness about people, especially children, with autism. Many events are organized on this day including panel discussions with autism experts, politicians and non-government (NGO) representatives; informational events for parents of children with autism; conferences and workshops for professionals working with autistic people; artistic workshops for people with autism; television and radio shows as well as newspaper features about people with autism and their lives; launch of educational materials for parents and teachers; exhibition of art work by artists with autism; and display of posters and banners to increase public awareness regarding autism.

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the brain’s normal development in relation to social and communication skills. It is a physical condition that is linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. The exact causes of these abnormalities are still unknown. There are probably combinations of factors that lead to autism. Most parents of autistic children suspect that something is wrong with their child by the time the child is 18 months old. Being confused and without knowing what are the causes of the unusual behaviour of the child, they seek help by the time the child is of the age of two years. Children with autism typically have difficulties in social interactions and verbal and nonverbal communication.

Common traits of autistic people:

It has been commonly noticed that most autistic children are perfectly normal in appearance, but spend their time engaged in puzzling and disturbing behaviours which are markedly different from those of typical children. Less severe cases may be diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or with Asperger's Syndrome in which these children typically have normal speech, but they have many ‘autistic’ social and behavioural problems.

People with autism usually display certain common traits such as being excessively 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 such clothes; feel uneasy when routines are changed; perform repeated  body movements; and show unusual attachments to objects. Such traits may vary from moderate to severe depending on the nature of autism.

One of the most distressing aspects of autism is that autistic people have problems with communication skills. In most cases autistic people find it difficult to start and maintain a social conversation. They usually communicate with gestures instead of words and develop language slowly or not at all. They do not look at objects as others do and do not refer to self correctly. For instance, the child says "you want water" when it means "I want water" and repeats words or memorized passages, such as commercials.

One of the most common traits of the autistic people is that they have very poor social interaction. They do not make friends easily and avoid interactive games and seem to be withdrawn. They do not imitate the action of others, and prefer solitary or ritualistic plays. Most of the autistic people may not respond to eye contact or smiles, or may avoid eye contact and may treat others as if they are mere objects. Such people prefer to spend time alone, rather than with others and show a lack of empathy.

The response of the autistic people to sensory information is also quite different than the other people. Some of the autistic people do not get disturbed by loud noises. On the other hand some of them may find normal noises painful and hold hands over ears. They have either heightened or low senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste. Some may withdraw from physical contact because it is over stimulating or overwhelming. Heightened or low response to pain, rubbing surfaces, mouths or licking objects are other traits displayed by the autistic people.

The behaviour of the autistic people is quite unusual. Many people with autism display intense tantrums. They are either overactive or very passive. They manifest aggression towards others or inflict harm on themselves. Usually, people with autism get stuck on a single topic or task and have a short attention span. Besides these traits, they have very narrow interests, show a strong need for sameness and  use repetitive body movements.

Types of Autism:

There are many different types of known autism and many more unknown types. However, the following three types of autism are more common:

Autistic disorder that impairs social interaction. It is the most serious of all types. Also known as true autism, this disorder results in stereotyped behaviours, interests and activities.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), commonly referred to as atypical autism is less serious than true autism. The characteristics of PDD include the children having a normal pattern of development but then have a regression of skill as they get older.

Asperger’s Disorder which is named after Hans Asperger who through his studies in Vienna in 1944 discovered that many individuals have problems with social skills and repetitive patterns, but  do not have trouble with learning or their cognitive abilities. They also portray some very exceptional talents or abilities that are considered to be very remarkable. Albert Einstein is a very famous individual who had Asperger's Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome is characterized by impairments in social interaction and  is the least serious of all types.

Causes of Autism:

Autism affects about 1 in every 150 children. Some scientists think that some children might be more likely to get autism because it or similar disorders run in their families. As of now, there is no agreement on the causes of autism. There is, however, a great deal of new research on the subject. Scientists are finding surprising new information about genetics, brain structure, environmental impacts and more.

The brain contains over 100 billion nerve cells called neurons and each neuron may have hundreds or thousands of connections that carry messages to other nerve cells in the brain and body. The connections and the chemical messengers they send help one to see, feel, move, remember and work together as they should.

For some reason, some of the cells and connections in the brain of a child with autism, especially those that affect communication, emotions and senses do not develop properly or get damaged. Scientists are still trying to understand how and why this happens.

Indicators of Autism:

Parents should look for possible indicators of Autism Spectrum Disorders which include: the child does not babble, point or make meaningful gestures by one year of age; does not speak one word by 16 months; does not combine two words by two years; does not respond to name; loses language or social skills; poor eye contact; does not seem to know how to play with toys or excessively lines up toys or other objects; is attached to one particular toy or object; does not smile or interact joyfully; and at times seems to be hearing impaired.

However, it is important to note that there could be many possible explanations for most of the symptoms listed above. A child's attachment to a particular toy or difficulty with language skills is not in itself a sign of autism. Similarly, child who does have excellent language skills may still be diagnosable on the autism spectrum. In fact, some children who are diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome have extraordinary language and reading skills.

Today, autism is generally diagnosed through a process of interviews with parents and observation of children. Some researchers, however, have found correlations between certain physical issues and autism. Often, specialists work together as a team to figure out what is wrong. The team might include a paediatrician, a paediatric neurologist, a paediatric developmentalist, a child psychiatrist, a child psychologist, speech and language therapists and others. The team members study how the child plays, learns, communicates, and behaves. The team listens carefully to what parents have noticed about their children. Using the information they have gathered, doctors can decide whether a child has autism or another problem.

Dealing with Autism:

It was commonly believed that autism is just a fate that one has to accept. However, the good news is that there are now a wide variety of treatment options which can be very helpful in dealing with autism. Some treatments may lead to great improvement, and others may have little or no effect.

One fundamental issue to be borne in mind by parents with autistic children is that there is no complete cure for autism. However, doctors, therapists and special teachers can help children with autism overcome or adjust to many difficulties. The earlier a child starts treatment for autism, the better.

Different children need different kinds of help. But learning how to communicate is always an important first step. Spoken language can be hard for children with autism to learn. Most understand words better by seeing them. Thus, therapists teach them how to communicate by pointing or using pictures or sign language. This method of teaching  makes learning other things easier and eventually many kids with autism learn to talk.

Therapists also help children learn social skills such as how to greet people, wait for a turn and follow directions. Some kids need special help with living skills such as brushing teeth or making a bed. Others have trouble sitting still or controlling their tempers and need therapy to help them control their behaviour. Some children take medications to help their moods and behaviour, but there is no medicine to cure autism.

Autism remains a challenging condition for children and their families, but the outlook today is much better than it was a generation ago. At that time, most people with autism were placed in institutions. Today, with the right therapy many of the symptoms of autism can be improved, though most people will have some symptoms throughout their lives. Most people with autism are able to live with their families or in the community.

Students with mild autism sometimes can go to regular school. But most children with autism need calmer and more orderly surroundings. They also need teachers trained to understand the problems they have with communicating and learning. They may learn at home or in special classes at public or private schools. Some children with mild autism will grow up and be able to live on their own. However, those with more serious problems will always need some kind of help. But all children with autism have brighter futures when they have the support and understanding of doctors, teachers, caregivers, parents, brothers, sisters, and friends.

Role of the Media:

As World Autism Awareness Day is being celebrated throughout the globe on 2 April, 2011, the press and electronic media can play an important role in educating the people about autism. The press in India can have an enormous impact in spreading awareness regarding autism. A decade ago, in July 1997, when an article about autism was published in the ‘Hindu’,  the newspaper office received more than eighty letters from parents and family members of persons with autism, persons with autism themselves and professionals and other interested persons requesting more information. Realising the gravity of the problem faced by the parents of autistic children and persons affected by autism, the media has continued to play an important role in increasing awareness about autism in India.

There has been efforts in the Hollywood to portray characters with autism in some memorable movies, the most remarkable of them being the ‘Rain Man’ (1988) which bagged Academy honours for best director, screenplay, picture and actor (Dustin Hoffman). The movie narrates the story of two brothers, an autistic one played by Dustin Hoffman who inherits 3 million dollars from their father, and the other one is a car dealer played by Tom Cruise who is not close to them. They go on a cross-country journey after their father's death and get to know each other.

Another movie, ‘The Boy Who Could Fly’ (1986) is the story of an autistic teenager who goes  to his uncle's home after both his parents die in an air crash. He makes friends with the neighbourhood girl who become his tutor later and helps him. Many parents of autistic children claimed that the boy in this film seemed so real autistic that just like their sons.

The film, ‘Mozart and The Whale’ (2005), is a romantic story between a boy and a girl, both suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, a mild case of autism. As they are different from those normal couples because of the disorder, it makes love more complicated.

Institutions for Autistic Children:

A number of NGOs and institutions throughout India work in spreading awareness regarding autism and help the parents with autistic children in diagnosing their condition and helping them in their education and rehabilitation.  Some of the important institutions in Bangalore include: Academy for Severe Handicap and Autism (ASHA):76/A, Kirloskar colony, HBCS 3rd Stage, 4th Block, Basaveswarnagar, Bangalore – 560079; Sunshine Autism Trust, 280, 6th Cross, Domlur Layout, Bangalore – 560071; Apoorva Center for Autism, c/o Lions Club of Sarakki, 21st main, 1st cross, Marenahalli, J P Nagar Phase-2, Bangalore – 560078;  Autism Society of India, 60 Vittal Mallya Road,Bangalore 560001; India Autism Forum, S-123, Kirloskar Colony, III Stage IV Block, Basveswarnagar, Bangalore 560079.

In Dakshina Kannada and Udupi Districts there are certain institutions that provide education and training to the autistic children. The are: the Chetana Child Development Centre which provided autism screening, functional assessment, curriculum planning, therapeutic intervention, sensory integration therapy and parental guidance and training. Merelyn Integrated Education Resource cell for Children with Special Needs at Babyland-Preethi Primary School, Nandigudda Road, Attavar, Mangalore-575001;  Asha Nilaya at Lombard Memorial Hospital, Udupi; Special School for Mentally Challenged run by Jeevan Jyothi Charitable trust, Kinnigoli; Manasa Rehabilitation and Training Centre for Mentally Challenged Children at Shantipura, Padubelle, Udupi District.

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By Dr. Eugene DSouza, Moodubelle
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Comment on this article

  • Cyril Mendonca, Shirva/USA

    Sat, Apr 02 2011

    My heart goes to the people who understand autistic Children & parents and the care givers of Autistic children. It is a hercules task to understand and to take care these special kids. Some of the kids with proper care will outforporm normal kids in education, art & sports. It is a sleepless nights for parents with autistic kids in India people call it a curse.

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