Autism

Autism diagnosis – the earlier, the better

autistic child looking lost

Autism can leave a child lonely and socially isolated due to an inability to communicate

Autism can cause a lot of problems for children. Perhaps the main one is that they are likely to suffer social isolation. It can make it very difficult for a child to communicate with other children (and adults too), and the child can be forced into living in his or her own little world. They may get on very well in that little world (some autistic children do), but the natural state for a growning child is that they communicate with other children and relate easily to others. Autism can severely interfere with this.

Missing developmental milestones can be an indication of autism

Autism is often diagnosed in the first few years of life, when certain developmental milestones are missed. An example would be a developmental delay in talking, or an apparent unwillingness to interact with other children. However, if we could recognise the symptoms earlier then maybe we could help children with autistic tendencies earlier too, and make their transition into ‘normal’ life that much easier.

In fact, it might be possible to avoid some of the pitfalls of autism altogether. At least, this is the idea behind a paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, in 2011.

Learning to recognise the early signs of autism

Brooke Ingersoll, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, points out that it has often been difficult to understand what is going on in the world of an austistic child, but research is revealing that the problems of later autism are often foreshadowed by early signs, if only we can recognise them.

Children heading towards the world of autistic isolation can often start off by showing a distinct lack of “joint attention behaviors” – i.e. the ability to focus on playing with a toy, for example, and, at the same time, another person. This can sometimes even be seen in children as young as six to twelve months, and the earlier it is spotted, the better.

If these possible early signs of a learning difficulty can be picked up on and addressed immediately, it might be possible to change the way the child is developing. There may be difficulties in social interaction that can be changed, and by making these changes it might be possible to steer the child towards a more ‘normal’ development.

A therapist can teach by example

For example, if the child doesn’t imitate others (a behaviour typical of autism), then there are things the therapist can do to teach the correct behaviour. The therapist could get involved in playing with the child by imitating his behaviour, for example. This not only teaches the child the value of imitating (which is how we learn, generally), but also encourages interaction on all levels.

Taking this approach can mean that, a few years down the line, the child is not isolated (or at least not to the same degree), and has developed some language skills (which often are stilted, if the child grows up largely in isolation).

Preventing autism is the goal … but it’s still early days

“We try to teach them, imitating other people is this great social thing,” Ingersoll says. These techniques are also taught to parents to practice at home so that they better understand how to encourage the proper behaviours.

It’s still early days, as far as this approach goes, but Ingersoll is optimistic. As she says, “I think there’s a lot of hope that if we can figure out the right behaviours early enough, and intervene early enough, we may be able to prevent the development of autism.”

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