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World Autism Month: Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disability without physical traits

Like mental health issues, many developmental disorders are not visible in the same way that physical disabilities are (with the exception of Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, which do have physical characteristics).
By Dr Manish Samnani
UPDATED ON APR 17, 2019 02:57 PM IST

How much do you know about developmental disorders? Do you know that many of these disorders are not associated with any physical traits or visible characteristics? Like mental health issues, many developmental disorders are not visible in the same way that physical disabilities are (with the exception of Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, which do have physical characteristics). Certain behaviours are linked to developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but without physical characteristics that suggest a disorder or disability; these behaviours are often seen as odd, inappropriate or unacceptable.

Unfortunately, unusual behaviours lead to reactions that are hurtful and isolating – certainly not how someone with a disorder should be treated. And this is just one way that low levels of awareness affect those with developmental disorders, particularly autism spectrum disorder.

World Autism month, in April, is meant to change this.

Children affected with this disorder

The number of children with a developmental disorder in India is likely greater than you would have imagined. In India today, nearly one in eight children between the ages of two and nine years has at least one developmental disorder, according to a study published in July 2018. Developmental disorders covered in this study include vision impairment, epilepsy, neuromotor impairments (cerebral palsy), hearing impairment, speech and language disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and intellectual disability.

A global study published in August 2018 reported that as of 2016, India had 11,560,118 children under age five with a developmental disability – the largest number of any of the 195 countries covered in the study, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The figures are too great to be ignored, from both a public health perspective and from an economic perspective. Children with developmental disorders are not lacking intelligence or potential. In fact, these disorders are associated with unique strengths that can be put to great use in many different fields. But their skills and talents can only be maximized if they are given the support they need from the healthcare professionals and schools in their communities.

Support for the families

Their families need support too, and that’s where we can all lend a hand – first by making an effort to understand developmental disorders like ASD and then by sharing our understanding to build awareness and acceptance. Though you may not know it, you likely have a friend, co-worker or neighbour with a special needs child. You can help them by spreading awareness around autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disorders. And we can all help by calling on government bodies and the private sector to do more for them and their families.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

•ASD is a neuro-developmental disorder with symptoms that typically appear in the first two years of life, though it can be diagnosed at any age.

•Autism spectrum disorder is a term that represents several disorders, including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder.

•No two cases of ASD are alike. Like a fingerprint, every case of ASD is unique.

•ASD typically affects communication and social skills, which can lead others to see the individual as being rude or insensitive.

Traits or symptoms can include:

•Limited and repetitive patterns of behaviour.

•A preference for specific routines or rituals and a strong dislike for any change in the routine or ritual.

•Has problems with coordination or has odd patterns of movement, such as walking on tip toes.

•Unusually sensitive to light, sound or touch but indifferent to pain or temperature.

•Specific food preferences.

•A preference to play alone and a tendency to avoid being cuddled or held.

•A tendency to avoid eye contact or respond to one’s name.

•A habit of repeating words or phrases without really understanding their meaning.

•Speech that is delivered in an abnormal tone or rhythm, for example, in a singsong voice.

•Delayed speech or the loss of words he / she once knew and used.

•An inability to express emotion or recognize and understand the emotions of others.

•An intense interest in specific objects and a desire to talk about them at great length and in great detail.

•An inability to understand simple questions or directions.

•An inability to recognize nonverbal cues such as facial expressions or tone of voice.

These are some of the most common symptoms. Individuals with ASD may have just a few of these symptoms, or they may have many. Similarly, the symptoms can vary greatly in their severity. In fact, someone with a milder case of ASD may just appear to be quirky or a little bit different.

This World Autism Month, stand up for those with ASD by reading more about it and next time you see a child who behaves differently, remind yourself that ASD could be the cause of that behaviour. Your understanding and acceptance are the best things you can offer.

Dr. Manish Samnani is Head Occupational Therapist, Mom’s Belief Soch

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