Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reaching out to autistic kids

Living with an autistic child is a huge challenge but it can be overcome with the right understanding and approach, discovers Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal

Ruth S. Arunasalam

“It’s only when you do (understand autism) that you can take the child from his world and bring (him) into ours.” - Ruth S. Arunasalam

HIS little face scrunches up in concentration. His eyes dart every which way, mesmerised by the bright little green icon on the screen of his PC.

Like any toddler, Zahrul (not his real name) loves to play computer games but unlike most, he doesn’t seem to know when to call time out. His mother makes various attempts to drag him away, cajoling at first and later more exasperatedly. But he won’t be dislodged from his perch on the bright red plastic stool. His mother resigns herself to defeat - again.

“He’s just being difficult,” I remember his mother saying to me as rationale for her 4-year-old’s behaviour. I wasn’t so sure at the time. The glazed look, the refusal to look at anyone straight in the face, the erratic tantrums, the babbling - it seemed unusual. And not unlike a lot of parents, the mother thought it was just one of those things her young son would get over with age.

“Some parents are in denial,” says Ruth S. Arunasalam, teacher-cum-director of the National Autistic Centre in Klang when I recount this story to her.

“A lot of it has to do with the lack of awareness. Perhaps the mother just didn’t know that her son was exhibiting symptoms of autism.”

Ruth, herself a mother of two, is hoping to get more parents clued in on how to deal with and help kids with autism through a two-day workshop with NST’s NIE (Newspaper In Education) on March 24-25 at Balai Berita in Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur.

Parents and caregivers will learn how to identify common symptoms and problems related to autism, as well as relevant strategies.

“It’s very important to understand what autism is,” says Ruth. “It’s only when you do that you can take the child from his or her own world and into ours. The word autism originated from the Greek word autos, which means ‘self’ implying that children with this condition are inclined to be with self as opposed to the outside world. They are individuals trapped in their own world, disconnected and oblivious to people, surroundings and environment as a whole.”

Autism is a cognitive neurodevelopment disorder, which currently inflicts thousands of individuals worldwide. This developmental disorder, which appears in the first three years of life affects emotion, learning ability and memory that unfolds as the child grows.

It encompasses the disability to know, feel, understand both mental and emotional processes of communication vital to form reciprocal relationships, which is an important survival trait for kids.

“You send your child to a normal school because you have no idea that he or she is autistic. Then you despair because things don’t seem to be going well. But the child continues at school. At some point it will be too late,” says Ruth.

People say it’s never too late but, cautions the youthful 50-year-old KL-lite, “We are who we are from the ages 0-5 so if we can intervene before a child reaches 5, it would be better because the child’s brain is more pliable during this stage. When things are left too late, there’ll be a developmental absence or loopholes, which means that they’ll be without proper social skills or attention”.

The first thing parents should do when they suspect that something is amiss is to go and see a developmental paediatrician or a paediatrician who will run simple tests. From there they’ll be able to narrow down data and eventually determine the severity of the condition.

“Once you’ve done that, if the child is from the ages of 0-5, look for a school with an intervention programme.”

An early, intensive, appropriate treatment programme will greatly improve the outlook for most young children with autism.

This could be PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), a great tool in helping all non-verbal children to communicate without words, or ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis), which uses a one-on-one teaching approach that reinforces the practice of various skills.

The goal is to get the child close to normal developmental functioning. Or even Teacch (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children), which uses picture schedules and other visual cues that help the child work independently and organise and structure their environments.

Ruth is a legal eagle by training whose passion for autism was triggered when she got the opportunity to do field work at Klang’s National Autistic Centre when she was doing her Masters.

She says: “The objective of these intervention programmes isn’t to make the child get 10 As or read fluently but to teach him survival skills so that we can bring the child who’s lost in his own world, into ours. To do this, we intervene but in a consistent manner because these kids tend to be quite resistant to change.”

This is important in order to create an atmosphere that’s stable, she adds. “As soon as you’re inconsistent, the child will throw tantrums, get agitated etc. In my workshop, we’ll look at the triads of impairment and expand on the behavioural issues, which Man generally take for granted. A simple thing like not being able to play with a toy imaginatively creates a tsunami of reaction or negativity in a child later in adulthood because they’re not able to think out of that little box.”

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