A great deal to learn as autism on the rise

Kaius Gibb, Ben Chapman and Alexander Ford of Kaimes Special School have developed their biscuit-making business. Picture: Jane Barlow
Kaius Gibb, Ben Chapman and Alexander Ford of Kaimes Special School have developed their biscuit-making business. Picture: Jane Barlow
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AUTISM Awareness Month provides much-needed recognition of this still misunderstood condition, says Stuart Jacob

This month is Autism Awareness Month as groups across the globe focus on increasing knowledge and acceptance of autism through fundraising and awareness raising activities.

Autism is a complex life-long neuro-developmental disorder, which affects how people communicate with, and relate to other people and make sense of the world. To varying degrees it affects social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, interests and behaviour.

The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to people with autism, who often prefer to have a fixed daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. Many have intense special interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong and some people with autism may eventually be able to work or study in related areas.

Around one in a hundred people in Scotland has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which includes Asperger syndrome. While the causes are complex and continue to be researched, it is thought that several complex genetic and environmental factors are involved. In some cases, an underlying condition may contribute to this and many more boys are affected than girls

A range of events will be held during the month to raise awareness and understanding of ASD, from clothes swaps to art exhibitions, from sponsored walks to information open days. Falkland House School in Fife, in conjunction with Autism Network Scotland, will host a seminar on the emotional health and wellbeing of those with autism later in the month.

Symptoms of autism are usually seen early in development. Most children with severe autism are diagnosed by age 3 but some children with milder forms of autism, such as Asperger syndrome, may not be diagnosed until later, when their problems with social interaction cause difficulties at school. In fact the average age for diagnosis for Asperger syndrome is around age 9.

Children, young people and adults with ASD are often also affected by other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), epilepsy or a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia or dyspraxia. About half of those with ASD have varying levels of learning difficulties.

There is no ‘cure’ and some people with accompanying severe learning difficulties will need life-long support and assistance to live independently as adults. However, a range of specialist education and behavioural programmes (often referred to as interventions) can be effective in improving the skills of children with ASD.

Some types of intervention can involve hours of intensive work, and this is not always possible for many families because of the practical, emotional and financial commitments necessary. Treatment for ASD often involves a team of different specialists working together, such as a paediatrician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist.

With the right help and encouragement, some people are therefore able to learn strategies which help in managing their condition and there is no reason why they and their families cannot enjoy a good quality of life.

The prevalence of ASD is currently rising in many countries around the world and we have witnessed a dramatic increase in numbers of children, particularly in the early years. In Edinburgh, for example, the number of children requiring early years support for autism has tripled over six years to 91 children.

This rise can be explained in part by improved public recognition of ASD, improved clinical understanding and developments in diagnosis. If children are diagnosed in the early years then they will require additional support throughout their school years and this requires greater resourcing. Indeed, caring for and educating children and young people with this condition places challenges on health care, education and training programs generally, against a background of often constrained resourcing available.

Some people with ASD had features of the condition as a child, but enter adulthood without ever being diagnosed. However, getting a diagnosis as an adult can often help people with ASD and their families understand the condition and work out what kind of support they need.

While there is a lot of good work going on to support those with autism there is still much that can be done to ensure that those with this condition can realise their full potential and become more accepted by society as a whole.