When people ask me if there’s a particular look with which one can identify a child on the autism spectrum, I just tell them “NO”. In fact, I sometimes say that if there was any look for autism, then it will be called “CUTE”. I have worked with quite a number of children on the spectrum and I can testify that they are cute. I’m sure that if you have met any child with autism, you will agree with me. But we can’t assume that every cute child has autism. It will be amusing to see people looking at every cute child as having autism. lol.
So what then should we look out for? And what should we do if we suspect that a child is on the autism spectrum?
As a child grows, there are certain gestures that one should expect. They are communication, social, and cognitive development milestones. For some children with autism that show symptoms early, parents have eventually found out that these children did not show the expected gesture with each milestone. So the early signs to watch out for include;
· No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months
· No back and forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months
· No babbling by 12 months
· No back and forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
· No words by 16 months
· No 2-word meaningful phrases (without imitating or repeating) by 24 months
But some children do not delay in development, but lose acquired skill any time before age three. Therefore any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age before age three may suggest autism.
As the child grows certain symptoms or signs become more obvious. So other signs to watch out for include;
· When a child does not play with peers, but will rather play with self
· When a child does not give eye contact
· When a child does not respond to name or you suspect that the child is deaf by 12 months
· When a child is hyperactive and still does not play with peers
· When a child will rather draw your hand to his need than point to it or tell you verbally
· When a child displays ritualistic or obsessive behaviour (e.g. arranging things in order, opening and closing of doors etc)
As a parent, if you read this article and you suspect that your child may be on the autism spectrum, maybe your child shows some of these symptoms, what should you do?
1. Speak to a doctor about your fears. We established in the previous article the importance of getting a doctor’s diagnosis. You don’t want to address the wrong disorder, so please, it is VERY important that you talk to your doctor (especially a paediatrician) about your fears.
2. Get online to browse on any new information on autism that can help you or the doctor. In Nigeria, we have heard of some children that were diagnosed late because the doctor concluded that it was “late development” and the mothers just stopped there. Please o, Google is your friend. Going online will arm you with information that will help you and the doctor.
3. Get therapy for your child. Even if the child does not have autism, the signs have to be addressed. A therapist addresses the symptoms. Knowing the exact condition helps the therapist to tailor the therapy to address the particular condition. But while you wait for the doctor’s report, please get the right therapy for your child. The different interventions/therapy may include Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), Speech therapy, Behaviour modification, Physical/Occupational Therapy, Sensory Integration, Autism Spectrum Adaptive Program (ASAP), Biomedical (which can include change of diet, medication etc). The therapist or support worker will tell you the particular treatment that is applicable to your child or that he/she offers. In Nigeria, there are Special schools or centres in different parts of the nation that provide special education for children living with autism. Some Mainstream/Regular schools also provide special education for children with autism. So you can decide what kind of service you want for your child, and go for it. There will be another article on what you should look out for when putting your child in a regular school.
4. Find support! This is very important. You can’t handle this alone. There are other parents that have been where you are and they will willingly, gladly and lovingly support you. There is a Facebook group called “Nigerians for Autism”, there are parents and professionals there that can provide support for you. There is also a parents’ support group in Nigeria called Parents Against Autism Initiative. If you send me an email (email@example.com), I can link you up with them.
5. Pray for your child and yourself. Prayer is very good, but it loses its essence when people pray only, without finding professional help for their child. While you are praying, please do the other things that have been suggested above. May God help you.
With all my love, I wish you all the best... Muah