HomeHealthLet’s learn about Autism

Let’s learn about Autism

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THIS month, Zimbabwe joins the world in observing World Autism Awareness month.
This year’s theme is: ‘Transforming the narrative: Contributions at home, at work, in the arts and in policymaking’, a call to bring up awareness about autism, accepting and supporting autistic people in the society and workplace.
Autism is a mental condition that starts at infancy, lasting throughout life .
Also known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), according to clinical diagnostic guides, conditions in autism are found to be on a spectrum, depending on how the symptoms present and how they affect functionality of the individual.
Clinical psychologist intern Regina Banda said the spectrum varies from high functioning to low functioning individuals.
“High functioning individuals are those who can go through their day-to-day lives with minimum to no assistance from the caregivers,” she said.
“On the other end of the spectrum are individuals whose symptoms bar them from living an independent life, requiring their caregivers to assist them in their daily living activities.”
Autism is found to be more prominent in males than in females.
Prevalence and occurrence of the condition are found to be increasing, but what cannot be agreed on is the reason behind the increase.
Banda said some people blamed false diagnosis while others say there is need for better detection techniques.
“Others still believe there is increased awareness of the conditions, hence better identification of the signs and symptoms,” she said.
Autism diagnosis is done by medical professionals, including psychiatrists and psychologists.
The diagnostic process has been found to be problematic in most cases since there are no medical tests done but clinicians depend on observation of behaviour in the individuals.
This has been blamed for the general under-diagnosis of individuals who are on the high functioning end of the spectrum.
Banda said it has been found that some clinicians are reluctant to diagnose for fear of attaching a wrong label to presenting conditions.
“Since there is no cure for ASDs, effective management of the disorders is the sole hope for independent functioning in the individuals affected,” she said.
“Effective management depends on early and correct diagnosis.
“Early diagnosis takes advantage of the early ages of infancy where the brain of the child is elastic and can learn many things easily (brain plasticity).”
Banda said the brain learns all across a life span, but some critical ages have been found for high learning capacities.
“Effective management prevents the development of secondary symptoms that include self-injury, aggression and tantrums,” she said.
“These develop when the individual is not effectively managing the primary symptoms of the disorder. The secondary symptoms are much more disruptive to daily living of the individual and families.”
Banda said researchers contend that the more severe the symptoms of ASDs, the lower the life satisfaction levels of individuals with ASDs and their families.
“Medications may also be used to manage some symptoms, a multi-disciplinary team and a multi sectoral effort is necessary for effective management of ASDs.”
Symptoms and signs of the disorders vary in individuals.
The core symptoms are an inability to communicate, either because the individual is not verbal, or they have limited vocabulary in them.
The individuals also have challenges recognising social interaction cues making them unable to partake in reciprocal communication.
Individuals also have behavioural symptoms of rigidity of interest and at times repetitive behaviours.
Individuals on the spectrum may also have hyper or hypo sensation.
They may experience gastro-intestinal issues and high levels of stress and anxiety.
Signs that are common thus include repetitive behaviour like repeating sounds or words.
Sensory signs include walking on their toes, having a preference in texture or not being able to tell the difference between hot and cold.
Individuals also prefer to play on their own.
At times they seem deaf to their names when called.
Individuals also show high levels of discomfort when changes in their routine occurs, resulting in tantrums and meltdowns.
Banda said: “You may find one repeatedly playing one small portion of a movie, or repeating statements or words (echolalia).”
“Some may seem obsessed with their interests, for instance one could be interested in fish, and all they like to do would involve learning more about fish.”
ASDs also commonly co-occur with many other mental conditions, including epilepsy, cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, intellectual disability and obsessive and compulsive disorders.
Banda said some individuals on the high functioning end of the spectrum have been found to have substance abuse problems.
“Some are believed to resort to substances to manage anxiety,” she said.
“Others use substances to mask their social awkwardness so they get a sense of belonging. And yet others develop depressive disorders resulting from the continued belief that they can never belong or ever feel normal.”
Societal stigma remains a huge threat to the inclusivity of individuals on the ASD spectrum and their families.
The aim of Autism Awareness Month, therefore, is to spread awareness to the world so that individuals have vast knowledge and understanding of ASDs.
Banda said: “People on the spectrum need to be understood, because some behaviours they partake in are not misbehaviours, but their way of coping with a world that appears to be different from their perspective.”

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