A boon for autistic children

BANGALORE, DEC. 30. Arjun was born a healthy baby. He looked like any other normal child. Even at age three, he had not acquired verbal skills and was extremely anxious and fearful of people and new situations. Arjun is autistic.

Arjun's is not an isolated case. Autism, a devastating life-long development disability, prevents individuals from understanding what they see and hear and poses severe problems in communication and behaviour. It occurs in every one out of 500 children, according to global estimates, and is twice as common as blindness.

But a suitable model to address the needs of children with autism spectrum disorder has not been developed in India and there is limited awareness about the disorder among doctors and parents alike. Moreover, each child has different needs and may require tailor-made programmes targeted towards behaviour modification and improving communication skills. Therefore, success with all children through a particular programme may not be achieved, say experts.

But now there seems to be a ray of hope for these children in the ``Communication-DEALL (Development Eclectic Approach to Language Learning)'' programme. A pioneering project developed by Dr. Pratibha Karanth, a speech language pathologist, Communication-DEALL is an early intervention programme aimed at the cognitive, social and behavioural aspect of the child's development.

The children are given specialised education and intensive speech language therapy and taught communicative and socialising skills with the primary aim of integrating them into regular school by the time they reach the schooling age. The pre-schoolchildren are provided stimulation and training for three hours a day, for five days a week by speech language therapists, teachers, and occupational therapists. All children are profiled individually, and exclusive programmes are designed for each child. Therapy is mostly one-to-one or in small groups.

According to Dr. Karanth the project not just addresses ``Classic Autism'' but is designed for children with specific language disorders or communication problems, verbal apraxia and Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD). ``The best age for starting therapy is within 36 months of their birth so that by the time they reach five years they are ready to be integrated into regular school,'' says Dr. Karanth.

The project was launched by Dr. Karanth along with her team in November 2000 with 10 children diagnosed with developmental disorders. The therapy was conducted at the Dr. S.R.Chandrashekhar's Speech and Hearing Institute in the City. At the end of six months, it was found that none of the children had regressed and some of them had shown marked improvement. Due to the success rate and pressure from parents, the Communication-DEALL programme was started with another group of 12 in June this year. ``Of these, eight children are ready for integration in April, 2002. ``The real test will come only after three years when we will know whether they are really integrated into the school setup,'' she says.

Dr. Karanth now wants to target very young children -- those who are in the 18-24 month age group as integration would be easier. ``I want to write this programme as an intervention package so that the model could be replicated by others and used widely. With the limited resources, it is not possible for me and my team alone to continue the work,''she says.

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