Each year, World Autism Awareness Day is held on April 2 with an aim to make people understand and accept individuals with autism, foster worldwide support for them, and inspire people. In order to spread awareness on the occasion, experts on the subject recently spoke regarding the several misconceptions and stigma related to this disorder.
Dr Manish Mannan, HOD- Paediatrics & Neonatology, Paras Hospitals Gurugram said, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. It is estimated that worldwide one in 160 children has an ASD. Children with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors and might not want change in their daily activities. Many children with ASD also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things.”
He then talked about symptoms and treatments for ASD, and added, “Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and that is the time when they should be picked up so that early intervention can be initiated. It can be diagnosed as early as two years of age. Evidence-based psychosocial interventions, such as behavioural treatment and parent skills training programmes, can reduce difficulties in communication and social behaviour, with a positive impact on well-being and quality of life for children with ASD and their caregivers. Hence it is very important to get every child assessed by the paediatrician in regular normal routine checkups so that the developmental milestones can be assessed and any deviation may be picked up early.”
Worldwide, people with ASD are often subject to stigma, discrimination and human rights violations. Globally, access to services and support for people with ASD is inadequate and there is a strong need for society to be sensitive to children and people with ASD and treat them with compassion and care.
Dr Smita Kapoor Grover, Consultant- Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, Vision Eye Centre, New Delhi, said, “Children who are born with vision problems have often been seen to have traits of autism. Autism is 10 times more common among blind people as compared to the general population. Therefore, there is a definite association between eyesight and autism. Blind children have been reported to display the same behavioural disorders as autistic children. From weak social skills to impaired verbal communication, engaging in repetitive verbal and motor behavior (echolalia), children who are visually disabled share these characteristics with children who are autistic.”
Even as the development of early vision has a close relationship with the evolution of a child as a social individual with adequate emotional and cognitive skills, it is not clearly established whether autistic characteristics in a visually-impaired child are a result of disruption of vision or occur due to specific underlying neuro-developmental conditions. In other words, whether these common traits are a consequence of only ocular conditions or are a result of the brain being damaged to some extent can`t be determined with any degree of finality.
Yet, that there is a significant overlap in terms of characteristics exhibited by blind and autistic children can`t be denied. Some research suggests that autism is closely tied to specific causes of blindness such as optic nerve hypoplasia, retinopathy of prematurity, and anophthalmia, she added.
Basically, while it is important for blind children to be psycho-evaluated for any traits of autism by a trained psychologist, it is equally important for autistic children to have their eyes checked regularly.
Dr. Shuchin Bajaj, Founder Director, Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals talked about the myths surrounding this disorder and said, “Autism Spectrum Disorder-most commonly referred to as just `autism` and sometimes ASD-affects roughly 1 in 100 people. This developmental disorder is often diagnosed in children but some adults can be diagnosed with autism later in life. There are a ton of misconceptions and myths about autism and people with autism out there. These myths about autism can be offensive, harmful, stigmatising or just plain misleading. One common misconception among the myths about autism is that it is a disease. But the truth is Autism is not a disease. Autism cannot be cured with medicine.”
He further continued talking regarding the misconceptions and added, “Autistic people can still live completely independent, meaningful, healthy and productive lives, especially with the aid of therapy and professional intervention. There is also a myth that vaccines also cause autism. Some people think that autistic person cannot feel emotions, and therefore have no interest or ability in fostering relationships with others or making friends. But people with autism are completely capable of feeling all emotions.”
Due to the fact that autism can impact one`s ability to communicate and socially interact, hence it is often misinterpreted as being an expression of a lack of interest or inability in making connections and relationships.
Dr Sudip Chowdhury, Consultant Paediatrician, Columbia Asia Hospital, Palam Vihar, Gurgaon said, “Autism continues to be a much-misunderstood condition particularly in India where awareness about it is very low. Firstly, any behavioral difference in India is automatically assumed to be a mental health condition. This is also one of the prevalent misconceptions about autism – that is a mental health disability, which it is not. Autism is a neurological disorder that arises from abnormalities in the brain structure or neurotransmitters. This neurological disorder results in developmental disabilities and delays. But this is not a mental health disorder by any standard.”
He added, “Another major misconception worldwide that has particularly been spread by the anti-vaccination lobby is that excessive use of vaccines I causing an increase in the incidence of autism today. This is a myth that has no medical or scientific explanation. Many people also believe that medical experts today are unnecessarily including a larger number of symptoms and behaviours under the autism spectrum, implying that many children are wrongly being diagnosed as `autistic`. This is another misconception. Truth is that over time our understanding of autism disorder has increased and we now know that a wide spectrum of behaviours come under this condition. So, there are mild too severe forms of autism, the former sometimes referred to as `high functioning autism`.”
Another common misconception is that autistic individuals are mentally and intellectually challenged. Autistic people have developmental delays as well as communication issues but many of them go on to acquire education and work across different fields. Similarly, people with autism do not lack emotions or empathetic feelings as often believed. It is just that they express it differently than others.
“COVID-19 has impacted care for autistic kids across the world. Autistic kids often require special teaching and training facilities. They prefer to stick to regular routines. With social distancing requirements and cutting off of institutional care, the daily routines of autistic kids have been disrupted,” concluded Dr Sudip.
World Autism Awareness Day is recognized by the United Nations member states as a day to remember the rights of autistic individuals around the world. The United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared the day to advocate the need for people with autism to be able to lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.