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IN THE CANDID CORNER – Autism: through different lens

Matthew D. Farley

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“We also found stories of persons with autism living fulfilling lives, integrated . . . doing incredible things previously thought impossible.”  – From Spectrum PossibilitiesFor years autism has been treated as an incurable disorder. In 1940, persons who presented with symptoms were labeled as emotionally disturbed, schizophrenic and psychotic. Classical autism is characterised by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and non-verbal communication and imagination and unusual or bizarre activities and interests. Twenty years ago the vast majority of people with autism were eventually institutionalised and for decades it was treated with psychoanalysis. Dr N.P. Karthikeyen and Dr Subathra Jeyaram define it as a developmental disability, the result of a neurobiological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. It is characterised by profound disturbance in the emergence of social relations as early as the first months of life and almost always by age three. The clinical psychologist, Alana Warren spoke of autistic features being found in non-autistic children; of children existing in world of their own and of their social interaction including inappropriate eye contact. According to Ms Warren such children may still babble and will present restrictive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour that manifest an interest in vehicles with sirens, rocking and handclapping behaviours. She advocated a multidisciplinary and multimodal approach to the treatment of specific impairment. It is her recommendation that the assessment team should include a medical doctor, a psychologist, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist and an audiologist. It was her assessment that one in every 150 children is affected by the disorder which is still projected as an incurable condition. In the United States it is projected that 1.5 million children and adults are affected by ASD.Dr Shirley Alleyne, the paediactric and adult psychologist spoke to the first presentations including the child not speaking, not being sociable, of it being more common in girls, of poor language development and restrictive attachment disorder. As a result of childhood onset schizophrenia and auditory hallucination one will see the child unable to learn and write at school. She conceded that there is not much support for children with autism. While it was acknowledged that some new trends were emerging, the prognosis was still generally considered as a life-long and incurable disorder. It is one thing to listen to the professionals who through their traditional training rooted in the textbook principles and theories treat autism using the medical, psychiatric, psychoanalytical models. On the other hand it is both painful and refreshing to go on the journey with a parent for whom the experience is far removed from the textbook and for whom autism is real. While the professionals offered no hope beyond the traditional approaches, Mrs Deborah Thompson-Smith who graduated from the University of Toronto with a Specialist Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Exceptionality in Human Learning offered tremendous hope of a kind not seen before as possible.Having formed links with a network of parents, medical practitioners, psychologists, nutritionists, complimentary medicine practitioners and researchers who are collectively making significant gains in the treatment of autism. Deborah and her husband Larry have launched a new charity “Spectrum Possibilities,” to promote unlimited possibilities for persons with autism. The charity presents a model of hope and greater access to therapeutic resources for treatment and intervention. Mrs Thompson spoke of having seen with her own eyes and befriended families whose children have recovered or are recovering from autism. She spoke of individuals moving from being spaced out and gazing to an aware presence with a change of diet; from hyperactivity to calm with elimination of allergens and from being non-verbal and echolalic to becoming conversational and interactive with sound theory. She highlighted children or individuals moving from total isolation to engaging others in play through the DIR Floortime approach. Overwhelmingly Larry and Deborah have proposed a paradigm shift in the definition and treatment of autism, which must no longer be promoted as an incurable life-long disorder but as a treatable disease. Barbados has a scandalous track record in the provisions it makes for its special needs population. Parents of children with Down Syndrome, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation, spina bifida, cerebal palsy are often left to battle on their own with issues that are often beyond their comprehension and outside of their financial capabilities. It was painful to hear parents of children with autism spectrum disorder speak of the astronomical costs that are beyond the reach of the average parent. It is my hope that Spectrum Possibilities will offer new and different lens through we can define and treat citizens who are suspected or diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is their human right to access a quality life of which they should not be deprived because they are “different”.
l Matthew D. Farley is an educator, a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum On Education, and a social commentator.