Varun Kumar (name changed), a class VI student, was good with numbers. He could identify any day based on a date with ease. But school authorities also noticed that his communication was limited, characterised by short replies and lack of intonation. He was referred to the Institute of Child Health (ICH) Egmore.
At ICH’s autism clinic, the boy was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, and was put on social skills training. For many children like him, this exclusive clinic has opened the doors to specialised care for autism, and has helped in improving awareness among parents and schools.
Prior to establishing the clinic in January, the hospital received one or two autistic children in every two days. Now, three to four cases of autism are being detected every day, according to Shanthi Nambi, professor and head, Department of Child Psychiatry, ICH. “The clinic offers comprehensive assessment and management of children with autism under one roof. There are very few such centres. We have created new posts, including that of assistant professor, psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, speech and occupational therapist for the clinic,” she said.
As per the data from February 2014, one in 88 children in the country suffers from any one of the autism spectrum disorders. In childhood autism, a child has impairment in communication and social interaction with stereotyped behaviour and interests, while in Asperger’s syndrome, a child may display characteristics such as lack of social interaction, peer relation and eye contact but will also possess high intelligence in a particular area such as mathematics or music, she explained.
“Schools have been referring children to the clinic, while parents are also approaching us. The awareness is improving,” Dr. Nambi said. The clinic provides special educational intervention and behavioural therapy to help children improve social and communication skills and control aggression.
The clinic has also started an autism registry. “It is ideal to start screening children for autism when they are 18 months old. We provide a checklist for parents with about 23 questions to score the risk of autism,” S. Srinivasan, registrar of ICH said. On World Autism Awareness Day on Wednesday, ICH conducted an awareness programme for medical officers of Chennai Corporation.