Wellness & Fitness

Parenting: Dispelling common myths about autism


One can't grow out of autism. Once you are born with it, you will have the condition for life. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Recently, my one-year-old son was diagnosed with severe autism. It broke my heart, but I know I have to be strong to give him a semblance of normal life. What tools do I need to equip myself with to effectively parent him?

In deciding to ask this question at this early stage, you have made the right decision in seeking as much information as you can on the needs of your child.

As the old saying goes, knowledge is power, and it is only with this knowledge that you can make a realistic assessment of your expectations for your child.

That said, there is a great deal that is known about autism, but sadly as often happens in medical practice, there is also a great deal that remains unknown.

Science is changing a great deal over the years, and we are shedding many of our old explanations with new knowledge.

Each person with the condition is unique, and their social and medical needs are special to the person.

Therefore, it is only by working with the medical experts looking after your child that you will find what is the most suitable approach for your child.

This being a column for the public, it might be helpful to begin by stating some basic facts about autism that may shed some light for some readers.

Contrary to what I was taught at university, we now know that one is born with autism.

My teachers 47 years ago told us that autism was caused by upbringing by detached, parents who had no time for their children. It was then taught that such parents could, by showing more love to their children cure the condition.

My teachers John and Lorna Wing were psychiatrists and had an autistic daughter (Susie) and were sometimes described as "refrigerator parents". Such was the level of ignorance.

Secondly, we now know that one can't "grow out of autism", and that once you are born with it, you will have the condition for life.

Happily, however, there is much one can do to help children better understand and cope with the environment and improve communication skills.

Fundamentally, the autistic brain processes information in a different way than people.

Autism, therefore, is NOT a disease that has to be cured. It is simply a different way of thinking and behaving that demands understanding and adjustments to the environment in which one lives.

Indeed, there is evidence that in autism, there is a heightened sense of awareness while others have higher IQs than average. Experts use neurodevelopmental disorders to describe it and other similar conditions.

Asperger's syndrome falls under Autism Spectrum Disorder and is characterised by a very high IQ with severe difficulties in social communication as one is completely unable to read social cues.

There are doctors, lawyers and other professionals with this variant of the spectrum who know a great deal about facts but are unable to relate their knowledge to others around them.

Many people assume that autism exists mainly or mostly in children. The truth is that some people are only diagnosed with the condition in adulthood.

As happens in most cases, early diagnosis is the key to the best outcomes.

A lawyer we saw a few years ago was highly-intelligent and knowledgeable in the law, but he could not cope with the most basic social demands.

His life fell apart when it came to romantic relationships that always ended in disaster.

He had no understanding of emotional pain, and when she cried when he had forgotten to turn up for a date, he asked her if she had a toothache, a fact that made her cry even more, confirming to him that the toothache must be severe!

The fact that not many people know much about autism is, in part, the reason for the special autism day commemorated on April 2 every year.

For example, it is known that there are more people with autism than is realised generally.

It is no exaggeration to state that it is all around us but because we don't know what it looks like, we are unable to recognise it even as it stares us in the face.

Part of the reason for this ignorance is the fact that the condition presents in many varieties of complexity from the severe form diagnosed early as in your child, to the very mild variety that is only diagnosed in adulthood.

To complicate this even further, the symptom mix is also variable depending on many factors.

Some children have, as the main challenge, the difficulty of managing change around them, others have great difficulties managing social interactions while for others it is the basic difficulty in communication that is the predominant symptom.

You are clearly on the right side of history in bringing this question to us and if you work closely with medical and other experts, you cannot go wrong.