Prepared by: Dr. Fauziah binti Zainal Abidin
Gleneagles Kota Kinabalu
1. What is autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impairments in communication, behaviour, and social function. This impairment begins at childhood and have varying levels of severity.
2. What is the difference between a normal child and an autistic child?
An autistic child will have difficulties in three main areas:
a. Impairment in social interaction which includes impairment in use of non-verbal behaviours such as eye-to eye gazing, facial expression, body postures, and gestures that are usually present in regular social interaction.
b. Impairment in communication which include delay or total lack of speech development or impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others.
c. There is restricted, repetitive, and stereotype pattern or behaviour, interests, and activities which include hand flapping, body rocking, obsession with certain things, odd play, or sticking to certain rituals before certain work can be done.
3. What is the current percentage of children with autism in Malaysia?
There is no official registry for number of children with autism in Malaysia. This is partly because autism is categorised under learning disabilities along with other cognitive and developmental disabilities. However, a local survey (Azizan, 2008) revealed that 1 in 625 Malaysian children has autism.
NASOM (National Autism Society of Malaysia) reported there has been a 30% increase in the organisation’s intake of individuals with autism over a period of three years (Cheong, 2009).
4. How should autistic children be handled?
Any child who has not developed any speech by the age of two, exhibits odd behaviour, and has poor interaction with other people should be assessed properly. These signs are usually picked up during a visit to a well-child clinic and the child should then receive early referral to a paediatrician or family health physician. From there, the child will need to be assessed by a developmental paediatrician, child psychiatrist, or child psychologist.
Early diagnosis and prompt intervention are crucial to optimise the child’s potential.
5. Do autistic children pose harm?
Autistic children are not aggressive in the sense that they are purposely acting out to harm others. They might harm other people unintentionally due to their obsession with certain rituals or behaviour. For example, they may run over a younger child while they are running around. They may shout and cry in a crowded room when they get agitated or bite someone who is trying to refrain them. They usually prefer to be left alone.
They are actually more exposed to harm if not properly supervised, as they may fall or wander off suddenly.
6. How do most Malaysians react to children with autism?
Although there is an increase in general awareness about autism amongst Malaysians, there are still a lot of gaps in understanding of what autism is all about. ASD has varying levels of difficulty and impairment, which may be confusing to the general public. Lack of knowledge and exposure to autism can lead to negative impact on the autistic individual and their families.
7. Can autistic patients lose their memory during the process of growing up? Will they completely lose their mind?
Loss of memory as in loss of mind is not a feature of autism. There may be some associated mental issues like anxiety and depression in the unsupported autistic individuals as they age into their teen years or adulthood. That will require added care for them.
Some children with autism were reported by their parents to be developing as normal children within the first year of their lives. They were able to call their mother and may have said a few words with meaning but somehow regressed. Slowly some behavioural patterns emerge and poor interaction with other people becomes more noticeable. This is a recognised pattern present in some autistic children. The importance of early diagnosis, prompt intervention, and continued support for the autistic individual throughout their lives cannot be over emphasised here.
8. What is your advice for parents who would like their autistic children to mingle with other kids?
These parents will face a monumental task in raising their children. Their lives will never be the same. They will need to cope with themselves, with their own family members and relatives, and with their children’s challenging needs. It is not uncommon for a family unit to break up because of this make or break situation. Often, it is a single parent who has to shoulder most of the care for an autistic child. They also need all the support from the community as well as the healthcare and education system. All autistic children should receive a good chance at education and some of them may actually become contributing members of society.
9. What is your advice for people in general with regards to how they interact with an autistic child?
I believe very much in the African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. It takes the whole community to raise children. There is a need to have greater awareness and understanding about autism specifically and other disabilities generally.
Children with autism look the same as normal kids and thus not easy to identify. Parents are judged when their children misbehave. Parents with autistic children are judged more often than not with hostile stares, general avoidance, and rude comments. This is very hurtful for most of them who are just trying the best they can for their children. It’s not surprising that most of these children are left at home most of the time because of their difficult behaviours. This may further impair the children’s chances of improving their interaction and communication with other people.
We therefore need to adopt a friendlier approach to these children and their families. We need to be kinder with each other and be less judgemental because unless we can walk in their shoes, we don’t really know what they are going through in their lives.