With April being Autism Awareness Month, we talk to the experts in our community about why more knowledge on the condition is crucial
Dor many of us, when we think of autism, it’s hard not to bring to mind Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the 1988 classic Rain Man.
But times have changed in the three decades since the movie was released, and while the actor might have won an Oscar for his performance, the film’s portrayal of autism may need more than a little updating.
As the world gets ready to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April, we talk to two local experts to dispel some common misconceptions and establish why more awareness is needed.
Knowing the signs
What exactly is autism?
“Autism by definition is a spectrum disorder, so there is a huge range of features along that spectrum,” explains Dr Michelle Kelly, assistant professor in the Counselling, Early Childhood and Special Education division at Emirates College for Advanced Education. “It’s a neurodevelopmental disorder and we don’t know for sure what causes it yet.”
But with a number of complex symptoms ranging from communication issues to repetitive behaviours, Dr Michelle cautions against getting hung-up on the stereotypes we might see on television.
“The media tends to portray people with autism as being on the more severe end of the spectrum,” she concedes. “Autism traits can vary from very low functioning to high functioning. No two individuals with autism are the same; they have very different characteristics, strengths and challenges.”
Dr Pamela Olsen, chief program officer at the New England Center for Children Abu Dhabi, agrees: “One of the biggest misconceptions about autism is the fact that there is any significant number of autistic people who are savants. That is very rare, and there is a broad spectrum.”
One thing is for sure, though: the earlier the diagnosis, the better – and for that, you need awareness, says Dr Michelle.
“Early identification and intervention lead to a better prognosis,” she says. “You can quite reliably diagnose autism before a child turns two years old. From six months old onwards, things may become apparent; a child might not be pointing to things of interest, responding to their name, or making eye contact, and typical developmental milestones might be delayed or might not be reached. Or they might start losing skills that they already had, like speech or social skills.
“The smallest, simplest behavioural interventions can make the biggest difference,” she adds. “That’s why awareness is so key.”
Fighting for change
As the popular saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child – and that’s no different in Abu Dhabi. With local community groups and specialist centres working together and providing dedicated workshops and activities for kids with autism, plus support for parents and the public too, the capital is definitely stepping up to raise awareness and fight misconceptions.
“When parents know their child has a diagnosis of autism, it can be a really scary time,” reflects Dr Michelle. “Initially it’s that fear that [your] child is different and that they will have to face challenges that a typically developing child may not have to face.”
Dr Pamela agrees: “Autism comes with a stigma because people don’t understand what it is,” she says. “It’s not easy for people to talk about things like autism, and we really need to help people open up. This can be difficult when there’s not a great deal of awareness in the community.
“I’ve been here 11 years and it’s been remarkable to see the change in public awareness and shifting attitudes relating to all disabilities,” she adds. “Community groups have been essential in increasing public awareness of autism. All of these groups together are helping to decrease the stigma – they’re saying that it’s okay to have autism, and that these people can be included in society.
“When people understand the situation and they realise that these people can be contributing members of our society, that’s when their attitudes will change.”
Do your research
- Autism Support Network UAE: facebook.com/autismsupportuae
- Emirates College for Advanced Education: Intersection of Muroor Road and Salama Bint Butti Street. Contact: 02 509 9999, ecae.ac.ae
- Goals UAE: facebook.com/goalsuae
- New England Center for Children Abu Dhabi: Building 31, Zone 23, Mohammed Bin Zayed City, near Abu Dhabi Polytechnic. Contact: 02 691 8888, neccabudhabi.org
- ABA Middle East: facebook.com/groups/abamiddleeast
- Association for Science in Autism Treatment: asatonline.org
- Autism Middle East (Arabic language): autismme.com
- Autism Speaks: autismspeaks.org
WORDS Camille Hogg