Autism can be treated, but it needs timely intervention, finds Nandhini Sundar

Kumar jumps excitedly on seeing the new visitor, waves his hands, making frantic gestures to indicate his desire to greet her. When the visitor greets him, he shows his happiness through unintelligible words. While his speech fails to convey their meaning, his delighted eyes and the bright smile he sports speak a million words, connecting instantly with her.

Kumar is autistic, showing the regular characteristics of autistic children. Yet his cheerful demeanour and positive attitude draws a stranger instantly to him, sparking the need to connect with him.

Autism is a condition that is present from birth or it is diagnosed in most cases after the age of two. The degree of autism varies in each case, from being mild to severe, with some experiencing normal speech and level of intelligence. Others could experience mental abnormalities and serious language difficulties.

Early steps

Early recognition and intervention is crucial to improve long term functioning of the child. While learning disabilities may or may not be present in all autistic children, early intervention improves the chances of the child acquiring skills to enable a more independent functioning.

Though not universal, babies who are autistic display certain characteristic features of gaze, hearing, social development and play. Autistic children often display an inherent need for routine, resisting change. Early intervention besides improving their communication skills, helps curtail inappropriate behaviours which can prove potentially dangerous or self destructive by introducing and replacing it with more appropriate behavioural patterns.

While the cause of autism remains unknown, it is generally perceived to be the result of damage to the brain in the pre-natal stage, though this theory is yet to be conclusively proved. The common factors considered to be responsible for an autistic condition are chromosomal abnormality, metabolic disorders, viral infections, immune intolerance, besides a host of other causes.

The Sunshine Centre for Autism in Domlur is a small organisation taking care of autistic children, meeting their special needs, providing them with early intervention to improve their skills and enable them to become independent.

Started in the mid-Nineties, the Centre currently cares for over 17 children.

Says Vanitha S. Rao, founder of Sunshine Centre for Autism: “Currently there are very few schools addressing autistic children. This coupled with failure to diagnose the autistic condition at a very early stage prevents autistic children benefiting from an efficient early intervention.”

Much is lost when the intervention is delayed, she laments. When diagnosed early, an autistic child's skills and interests can be identified and worked on, she says. Besides improving their communication skills, the child's activities can be channelled in that direction, whether it is music, art, computers, or any other ability.

Eight-year-old Mahesh, one of the students in the Centre found such an interest in computers. Besides his special interest in computers, he can also read and communicate fairly well. “This was possible because of early intervention in his case,” says Vanitha.

Given their lack of impulse control and emotional regulation, the task of guiding them later becomes tougher according to her. Some children also suffer from bouts of rage and can turn violent towards others. Alternatively they can also cause self injuries.

“It is best not to control them physically at such times as it can cause more harm to them or others. The ideal thing to do is to distract them with music or anything else they can relate to and calm them down,”she says.

The Centre uses a system of visuals, short instructions, clear cut structure and activities to guide the children to function more independently. While the Centre provides such personal attention during the day, parents are advised to continue with a similar set of instructions and activities at home.

While the condition of autism cannot be completely rectified, there is scope for intervention provided it is given at the right time. What is needed is greater awareness according to Vanitha amongst parents as well as society, which is currently lacking.

“People are not open to disability and this can hamper intervention. Coupled with this is the lack of funds, both private and government for such care.

A more sensitive and responsive approach would improve the care given to them,” she adds. Sunshine Centre for Autism can be contacted on 65360892 and by mail, .

(The names of children have been changed to protect identity)