Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Autism: Another perspective

Traditional definitions of autism focus on deficits in communication, social interaction and imagination. For most of autism’s history, it has been believed that individuals with autism lack interest in and avoid social contact. Observable behaviors across the spectrum such as stimming, repetitive acts, unusual mannerisms and echolalia are targeted for behavioral intervention to be corrected or redirected. In fact, most caregivers of children with autism will vouch that a large portion of the latter’s awake time is spent in behavioral modification and social skills enhancement. However, research over the past two decades has begun to look at autism beyond what is largely a socially constructed interpretation. There has been a shift in science to gain a deeper understanding of why certain behaviors occur. Could we be missing out or misinterpreting the actual reason behind for instance, why a child with autism is seen banging his head incessantly, flicking objects in front of his eyes, or smiling cheek to cheek for seemingly no rhyme or reason at all (these three examples are from my own personal experience with my son).

 Recent research has started to pay attention to sensory and motor/movement deficits that may explain symptoms that are commonly termed as ‘autistic behaviors’. This means that issues in sensory and motor functioning are being implicated for deficits in communication and socialization systems. Hence, researchers are broadening their lens to look at the neurological deficits that underlie autism. This shift in perspective is very significant if we are to get to the source of the so called autistic behaviors and understand why they take place. Our knowledge in this regard has great implications for the way we view these mannerisms and treat them. For instance, would you consider correcting the gait of someone with advanced Parkinson disease or redirecting a tic in someone with Tourette’s Syndrome. Probably not, and the reason for that is because you are looking at them from a neurological lens; you know that it may not be within the means of the individual suffering from those diseases to control the behavior.

To put it plainly, a restrictive view of autism may be misleading us into why someone with autism engages in loud vocalizations, has extreme reactions to small changes, rocks back and forth or repeats nursery rhymes endlessly. Interviews and self-stories of people on the spectrum have revealed that these stereotypical behaviors are more often that not a source of organizing and regulating experience; even perhaps a source of learning. 

Instead of looking at the person with autism as a whole, mind and body, we have relegated autism to a social interpretation of its symptoms. A new way of looking may be necessary so that opportunities to extend learning and develop relationships are not lost. It is essential to understand each and every individual with autism as unique, so that appropriate support can be provided; not to look for deficits but to focus on their strengths and competence.

Our children with autism are often at the receiving end of massive interventions to correct, stop, redirect and modify behaviors. We often forget the little souls that occupy these innocent bodies that are a jungle of misfiring neurons. Let’s get to know our children better and deeper so that we can help them without endangering their self-esteem. (Donellan, Hill & Leary 2013).

For appointments contact Huma at www.colouredcanvas.net

Donnellan, M. A., Hill, A. D., & Leary, R. M. (2013). Rethinking Autism:Implications of Sensory and Movement Differences for Understanding and support.  Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 6, 124. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2012.00124