Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a life-long developmental or intellectual disability associated with severe impairments in communication and social interrelations. Children suffering from autism experience difficulties in communication, whether verbal or non-verbal. Verbally, some children remain silent or have little communication while others may consistently repeat what is being said, a condition referred to as echolalia. Non-verbally, they may not understand the use of facial expressions, gestures, and body language in communication (Özyurt & Eliküçük, 2018). Socially, autistic children face challenges in comprehending the common unstated social rules. An attempt to respond socially may appear strange or unconventional as they lack understanding of that which is considered acceptable behavior. For instance, a child may be interested in joining others in a game but is unable to as he or she does not know how to engage in it. Challenges faced by children with ASD make socializing difficult resulting in most of them isolating themselves from the entire population.
Characteristics of Autism
According to Bultas et al. (2016), on the prevalence of ASD among children aged eight years in the US revealed that 1 child in every 54 kids suffers from the condition; and that boys were more prevalent in the disease, 4.3 more times as compared to girls. In terms of cognitive and intellectual processes among autistic participants in the research, 33% were intellectually disabled, registering an intelligence quotient of ≤70 (Maenner et al., 2020). The percentage was relatively high among girls at 39% as compared to boys at 32%. Additionally, among participants of similar ethnicity, sex, and race, the diagnosis of ASD was at 51 months from the time of birth. However, among participants with an intelligence quotient of ≤ 70, white children had an early diagnosis of 42 months compared to 48 months among black children.
Out of 10 autistic persons, only 1 may display signs of being a genius, that is, savant syndrome where one displays exceptional skills in a certain field such as the ability to memorize a lot of information. Concerning communication, an autistic individual experiences delay in speech, abnormal vocal patterns, inability to have conversations, aphasia, and child-like gabbling. Additionally, in terms of social interaction, autistic children tend to avoid social functions and eye contact, inability to clearly express their emotions, and failure to understand other people’s feelings (Nall, 2018). Mostly, they are unable to rightfully respond to emotions expressed by other people. Other than impairments, an autistic person projects repetitive patterns of behavior. Such a child may develop an obsession with a specific word or phrase resulting in consistent repetition of the same. Alternatively, they may be extremely interested in a certain topic to the extent that it consumes them. Other repetitive behaviors may include movements such as pacing up and down and arranging items in a specific manner.
The sensory or neurological response differs in autistic people. Some may be hyper-responsive while others may not respond or have difficulties in processing neurological information. Hyper-responsive individuals steer clear of sensory inhibiting stimuli such as light while under or non-responsive individuals seek for stimuli within their surroundings to trigger their senses (Grimaldi et al., 2018). Coping with daily life activities for autistic people is dependent on routines and predictability of events around them. A break in the routine can be overwhelming hence resulting in a mental break down or anxiety.
Effects of Autism on Developmental Domains of Young Children
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) groups developmental milestones in children as either cognitive/intellectual, physical/movement, communication/language, and emotional/social. For every different age, there is a specific developmental milestone to be expected. Experiencing delays in displaying the expected milestone does not necessarily mean that a child is autistic. However, indicators like the sudden loss of a skill that the child once had should be a cause for alarm. Autistic disorder in young children may occur by itself or along with other disorders such as anxiety, mood, sleep, and eating disorders, which eventually result in developmental delays. A deterioration in language or speech skills is a common delay among autistic children. However, although some children might not display this effect, the majority are affected. The ability to express and understand language is believed to develop within the first two years of life through social interactions (Özyurt & Eliküçük, 2018). Therefore, communication in babies is acquired through collective interrelations with people and their environment. Caregivers manage babies and help them in interacting with items in their surroundings. Activities such as mimicking sounds greatly help in developing language. Over time, games, songs, and the use of non-verbal communication such as gestures improve the ability to communicate effectively.
The inability to process and comprehend information can be attributed to intellectual or cognitive delays associated with autism. A child with a slow cognitive process experiences challenges in completing simple puzzles, playing games such as building blocks, and understanding basic terms even after repeated explanation. Children who display such impairments eventually develop a learning disability (Özyurt & Eliküçük, 2018). Sending an intellectually impaired autistic child to a normal school may be the most challenging task they would have to undertake. This is because schools expose autistic children to sensory stimuli which may overwhelm them and result in a mental break down.
The theory of mind poses a challenge among autistic children. This refers to the ability of an individual to process both his or her emotions as well as those of others and understand that each person has his/her thoughts. Autistic children experience a setback or cannot process emotions. A child may throw a tantrum or make disturbing noises instead of finding words to express disappointment (Grimaldi et al., 2018). Additionally, an autistic child may experience physical challenges such as movements. Common unusual motions among such children include flapping of hands and walking clumsily.
Major Services Provided
Children with autism require multiple services to improve their quality of life. The services range from assessment, diagnosis, health, special education, social, and support group services. Once a parent or caregiver suspects that a child is autistic, the immediate action would be to approach health care providers for assessment and diagnosis. There are different tools used in the assessment to achieve a correct diagnosis. For instance, questionnaires for the caregivers and a modified checklist for a child may be used. If the conclusion is that the child is autistic, then the patient is introduced to specific health care services (Bultas et al., 2016). There are a variety of health services offered to autistic children. They range from early interventions, mental, speech, and therapeutic services. Early interventions involve making a timely diagnosis of autism and introducing appropriate health and interactive activities. Depending on a child’s age and progression of ASD, health professionals may recommend commencement of therapeutic services for the patient. The main form of therapies varies from applied behavior analysis, occupational, speech, picture exchange, and communication therapy, among others.
To encourage positive behavior in a child, the caregiver is trained on how to use applied behavior analysis therapy. Medical professionals also use the technique which involves rewarding the patient to achieve good behavior. Alternatively, occupational therapy focuses more on the child’s needs and goals. It involves basic activities such as tying shoelaces to help the child get along the day independently. This type of therapy includes anything that is work, school, or game-related. Additionally, speech therapy assists the child in communicating; that is, both verbally and non-verbally. The aim is to help the child express themselves and learn to interact with others. At this point, a child is trained on how to use language, gestures, pictures, or drawings to achieve communication. A speech therapist works in correlation with both the patient and the caregiver. Lastly, picture exchange communication therapy is designed for autistic children who cannot speak. It allows them to achieve interaction using pictures (Bultas et al., 2016). This form of therapy is beneficial in communicating but does little in terms of speech.
Another form of service rendered to autistic children is special education. While the school environment may tend to overwhelm a child with autism, special schools designed for such children aim at helping the individual to reach his/her maximum learning potential. Mostly, such learning institutions have an individually designed curriculum that is responsive to the needs of the child. Finally, support group services are meant to help both the child and the family as dealing with autism may weigh heavily on both parties. Such services offer safe platforms for individuals to express themselves. Through the exchange of experiences, a child may learn how to deal with arising challenges (Özyurt & Eliküçük, 2018). Support groups may be formed within the community or by the help of healthcare service providers.
Professionals Who Support Autistic Children and Their Families
The diversity of ASD allows for the multi-collaboration of different professionals in the support of children and families dealing with autism to cope with their new normal. For instance, occupational therapists help a child to acquire skills that will help them achieve independence successfully. Often, the focus is on movement skills such as walking, holding an item, and daily life skills that encompass bathing and feeding themselves. Speech pathologists help a child to achieve communication through language and gestures among other non-verbal means (Bultas et al., 2016). ASD specialists particularize in helping an autistic child achieve desirable behaviors through different therapeutic measures. An example of such practices is applied behavioral analysis therapy. ASD specialists are mostly found in special schools for children dealing with autism.
Social workers help to improve institutional, psychological, and interactive functions of a child while offering support to the family. They come up with coordinated practical services that involve children and their caregivers. Such activities aim to ensure the successful development of the child while easing the burden from the family and allowing them to cope (Grimaldi et al., 2018). Other professionals that support ASD children include psychologists who major with ensuring that the patient is in a good state of mental health. Since autistic children demonstrate varying skills and abilities, psychologists test the intellectual or cognitive process of the child to determine their strengths and weaknesses and decide how to make the most out of each.
ASD affects children differently with such variations making it difficult for most caregivers to achieve the right diagnosis. Autism can be diagnosed as early as at the age of 6 months through behavioral signs. ASD impairs the intellectual, communication, and social aspects of an individual. Intellectually, one experiences difficulties in comprehending happenings in their surroundings. Some of the professionals who support autistic children and their families include occupational therapists, speech pathologists, social workers, and psychologists.
Bultas, M. W., McMillin, S. E., & Zand, D. H. (2016). Reducing barriers to care in the office-based health care setting for children with autism. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 30(1), 5-14.
Grimaldi, R., Gibson, G. R., Vulevic, J., Giallourou, N., Castro-Mejía, J. L., Hansen, L. H., Gibson, E.L., Nielsen, D., & Costabile, A. (2018). A prebiotic intervention study in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Microbiome, 6(1), 133-138.
Maenner, M. J., Shaw, K. A., & Baio, J. (2020). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years—Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2016. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 69(4), 1-5.
Nall, R. (2018). What to know about autism. Medical News Today. Web.
Özyurt, G., & Eliküçük, Ç. D. (2018). Comparison of language features, autism spectrum symptoms in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, developmental language delay, and healthy controls. Archives of Neuropsychiatry, 55(3), 205.