World Autism Awareness Day: Focusing on early detection and timely intervention

MARY OOMMEN –

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a cognitive disability that impairs social and language skills, often causing those who have it, to cling to repetitive routines and struggle to form relationships. Roughly 1 in every 100 people in the world has Autism. Yet, awareness about this complex developmental disorder is sadly lacking and unfortunately has meant that the condition is often misunderstood or misdiagnosed.

Symptoms can start to manifest within the first two years of life, with many appearing before children turn six months old. According to Dr. Raed A. Al-Saraireh, Medical Director, Arab Experience Medical Centre (OxyClinic), “The main indicators of Autism are considered to be in social interaction, language & behavioural aspects. These may be observed as weak response to their name, poor eye contact, an inability to share with peers and delayed speech.” Children with Autism are also more likely to suffer from co-occurring conditions such as asthma, gastrointestinal problems, allergies and seizures.
Autism Spectrum Disorder presents itself differently in different people and rarely manifests itself the same way. It is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is a huge variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. Some children may struggle with social and communication skills, while others may have difficulty across all symptom areas. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the better the long-term outcome. Research shows that early diagnosis and intervention during the first years of a child’s life can have a significantly positive impact in the long-term, particularly in the areas of language and social behaviour.
“Autism can be confirmed through some scores done by specialists,” according to Dr. Raed. If autism is suspected, the child should be referred to a specialized medical professional, such as a developmental paediatrician, child psychologist or neurologist, who can conduct autism-specific behavioural evaluations. Dr. Raed added that, “Autism is treatable but not curable, since we do not know the causative factors, but we can look for contributing factors that can be treated. Testing could involve symptoms evaluation to exclude any co-morbid factors like genetics, metabolic and biomedical.” There is no blood test to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder. A diagnosis is made based on an evaluation of behaviours displayed.
Available data indicates that 1 in every 162 people worldwide are afflicted with Autism. When analysing Autism rates by region, studies in Asia, Europe, and North American have all determined an average prevalence rate between 1 and 2 percent. In Oman around 1 in every 165 people are affected by ASD. In spite of this alarming figure, awareness about autism is still relatively lacking in Oman and parents of autistic kids often feel isolated, even in today’s electronically-connected world.
There are however, organizations like Muscat Autism Centre, Speciality Centre for Autism and Oman Autism Society, among others, that offer focused and specialized behavioural, psychological, and occupational therapies to help both individuals and families cope throughout their lifespan. These institutions provide counselling and support for parents and caregivers and create a sense of comfort by making people aware that they are not alone in their difficulties and that there are many others who have faced similar challenges and come out on top. Even though Autism is a lifelong disorder, there are many treatment options available today, including medication to manage symptoms.
The best therapy for Autistic children is to have the benefit of interacting with fellow students, teachers and parents. It is important therefore, to keep in mind that dealing with an Autistic child is a team effort involving parents, teachers, caregivers and doctors. Research suggests that early, intensive and individualized interventions based on applied behavioural analysis, is effective at improving language function and behaviour in children with Autism. Interventions focused on parent training and cognitive behavioural therapy can also help improve social skills, communication, language use and management of challenging behaviours.
For many people on the Autism Spectrum, access to affordable assistive technologies is a prerequisite to being able to exercise their basic human rights and participate in the community more fully. Assistive technology can reduce or eliminate the barriers to their participation on an equal basis with others.
This year as in the past, organizations in the Sultante will join others around the globe to raise awareness on World Autism Awareness Day. Muscat Autism Centre, will be holding special programs for children in their care. Speaking on the occasion, Mrs. Laurence Bassit, Centre CEO, Muscat Autism Centre said, “On World Autism Awareness Day, we renew our promise to always support children and parents dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorder. We aim at creating a wider awareness and want to acknowledge the hardships faced by the parents. We want the parents to know that we are proud of them and stand one with them. Let us all play our little part by changing our attitude towards children with ASD and let’s spread love, joy and acceptance on this day.”
As a community, we need to make every effort to work together on World Autism Awareness Day to make information about effective evidence-based treatment for Autism universally available, and create easier, faster, and more affordable access to that treatment for every child and family that needs it. We must redouble our efforts to educate families and practitioners about Autism’s early warning signs, diagnose children at a younger age, provide early intervention and break down the stigmas that continue to surround the condition.