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Story Highlights

  • Parents are being advised to pay close attention to their children’s development in order to identify early signs of autism.
  • Treatment for autism is multi-professional, including behavioural therapy to reduce autistic behaviour, occupational therapy, speech therapy and additional stimulation to advance child development.
  • The series of activities, which also include media interviews, will conclude with the annual World Autism concert at Emancipation Park on April 30.

Parents are being advised to pay close attention to their children’s development in order to identify early signs of autism.

Professor of Child Health, Child Development and Behaviour at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Maureen Samms-Vaughan, tells JIS News that a delay in the child’s speech is one of the first signs of the condition.

“The speech (will either) be slow, for example, the child is not saying any words by a year or not putting two words together, or the child starts speaking and the speech develops slowly; or normally and then stops,” she explains.

Parents may also notice delayed development of social skills, where the child does not interact with them or with other children.

“So, sometimes they don’t respond when you call their name or they don’t look at you and make eye contact when speaking or they don’t come and share things with you,” Professor Samms-Vaughan says.

Autistic children may also engage in what she describes as ‘sameness,’ which means they will be attached to performing repetitive behaviour.  They might also be particularly sensitive to sounds, smells, textures or tastes.

“Children without autism may do all of these things, but what makes the difference is the intensity and the frequency with which the children (display) these behaviours. Some of them, if you try to stop those behaviours, they get very upset,” Professor Samms-Vaughan points out.

Autism is the most common developmental problem in children worldwide. It affects one in every 68 children and is more common in boys than girls. Professor Samms-Vaughan tells JIS News that for every one girl with autism, five boys are affected.

While the cause of the condition is unknown, current knowledge suggests that it is related to genetics, as well as interactions in the environment.

Researchers continue to investigate the possible link to environmental factors such as experiences during pregnancy, heavy metals, toxins and pollution.

Professor Samms-Vaughan notes that researchers have found that the risk of autism is greater for children born to parents over the age of 35, or children who are premature.

Treatment for autism is multi-professional, including behavioural therapy to reduce autistic behaviour, occupational therapy, speech therapy and additional stimulation to advance child development.

Professor Samms-Vaughan notes that children are screened for indications of autism through questions incorporated in the Jamaica Child Health Passport.

The condition can then be confirmed by a specialist, who will do tests to not just diagnose autism, but to assess the child’s development to determine where he/she falls on the autism spectrum.

While there are a number of private sector entities offering specialist services, the Early Stimulation Programme (ESP), which is operated through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, has been instrumental in meeting the needs of autistic children.

The ESP is an assessment and early intervention programme for children with disabilities from birth to six years old. It provides professional identification and assessment of developmental disabilities in pre-school children; formulates and implement specific interventions catering to the individual needs of children with the assistance of parents; provides home-based teaching in order to minimise the need for institutionalised care; and serves as a resource centre for other agencies serving young children by providing consultations, referrals, intervention programmes and parental training.

Professor Samms-Vaughan says Jamaicans are becoming more aware of autism and its impact, due to public awareness campaigns and the prevalence of the condition. She calls for focus to be placed on highlighting the strengths of autistic children, as well as on enabling access to services.

“It’s about making sure that children are fully integrated in society. Our community needs to be more accepting of children with autism, and all children with disabilities. Not just in the open environment but also at schools,” she says.

Meanwhile, she is encouraging parents with autistic children to join a support group.

She says that while doctors and other professionals work to meet the needs of the autistic child, parental support is “quite different and absolutely necessary.”

Professor Samms-Vaughan tells JIS News that the Jamaica Autism Support Association (JASA), of which she is patron, is one organisation dedicated to advocacy, providing information to parents, promoting awareness of the condition, and facilitating the needed interaction among parents with autistic children.

The JASA hosts a meeting at the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) on Hope Road in Kingston on the last Saturday of every month, which allows parents to get together for discussion.

Professor Samms-Vaughan says parents travel from all across the country to participate in the forum.  “This meeting allows parents to share stories and advice and help each other through the process,” she notes.

Jamaica joins the international community in recognising April as World Autism Awareness Month.

JASA kicked off the observance with its annual ‘Surfing for Autism’ event on World Autism Day, April 2. The event involved collaboration with the Jamaica Surfing Association. A church service was also held on April 10 at the Holy Cross Church in

St. Andrew.

On Wednesday, April 12, JASA hosted a ‘Light It Up Blue’ seminar at the UWI, Mona Undercroft, to facilitate discussions on autism.

The series of activities, which also include media interviews, will conclude with the annual World Autism concert at Emancipation Park on April 30.