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N Touch
Thursday 24 May 2018
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Commentary

Understanding autism

DR RADICA MAHASE, founder/director of Support Autism TT

Marc is 14 years old. His parents have been unable to find a school which caters to his special needs, so he is not attending school. Although he understands most of what is said to him, he is non-verbal and communicates with his parents through gestures.

Once in a while he might use words, and very infrequently he replies in a sentence. Someone has to help him brush his teeth, shower and change his clothes. He requires constant supervision as he has no sense of danger and might wander off. He loves to listen to music and he often turns the volume up high.

Aditya is 15 and attends a private primary school. He communicates verbally and he completes daily tasks such as taking a shower, dressing and eating without any help from anyone. He has sensitive hearing and sometimes he wears noise-cancelling headphones in school or in public places.

Both Marc and Aditya were diagnosed with autism when they were about four or five years old.

Autism spectrum disorder is characterised by delays in speech development, issues with social interaction and various repetitive behaviours. It is a spectrum, which means that no two individuals diagnosed with autism display the traits.

For example, Marc does not communicate verbally, while Aditya speaks as well as other children his age. Marc has difficulties in social situations and does not interact with other children, whereas Aditya socialises with his peers at school. Thus, each individual with autism has to be treated as a separate person, catering to their own specific needs.

When an individual is diagnosed, the diagnosis places the child on a spectrum from low to high-functioning, depending on the level of development of the individual. In Trinidad and Tobago, those children who have been diagnosed with high-functioning autism have better opportunities for integration in society, and some attend public schools and socialise with their peers. However, those with low-functioning autism are the ones who are usually kept out of the public gaze and are unable to survive on a daily basis without constant care.

It is rather tricky to explain a disability that is not always visible. We live in a country where it is taken for granted that a disability is physical, and if we cannot see a physical problem then we believe that the individual is “normal.” Autism does not have a particular look; it cannot be recognised by simply looking at a person. Many parents and caregivers are often told that their children look “normal.” In Trinidad and Tobago this can prove to be very difficult for those with autism.

Often, when parents and caregivers take their child out in public and the child is overwhelmed or has a meltdown, people are very quick to say “give him a good slap,” or “she needs some licks” because they believe the child is “just harden” and should be disciplined.

This is not correct, however. Many individuals with autism are simply overwhelmed in normal, everyday situations and they respond to their environment in a different way.

Marc, for example, loves music, so when he becomes agitated in a particular situation, his parents put on his favourite CD and it calms him down. Aditya, on the other hand, becomes overwhelmed in noisy places and he only feels good again when he is in a quiet spot. While both Marc and Aditya look “normal,” it is their sensitivity and particular traits which define them and often these cannot be recognised by anyone who does not know them personally.

There is no cure for autism, but various types of therapies can help a person with autism to live more comfortably and/or independently. The most common therapies are speech, occupational, developmental and physical therapy. Also, individuals diagnosed with autism can learn just about anything if they are taught in a manner which addresses their specific level of development.

As Aditya is high-functioning, he does academic work, but Marc, on the other hand, is still at the development level of a three-year-old child and he has to be taught at that level. Through stimulating activities and constant repetition Marc learnt to do simple things like playing with a ball and colouring in his book.

Each of these boys faces challenges on a daily basis, but with available and accessible opportunities they will be able to live with autism in Trinidad and Tobago.

Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism TT

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