By Nur Atiqah Azman

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a wide spectrum of dysfunctions and disabilities that affect individuals with different characteristics.

This means that there are no two autistic children who are alike.

The complexity of this incidence is characterised by a dysfunction of the children’s sensory systems, as well as communication and social skills, and their adaptive behaviour.

Characteristics

Some children with ASD are born physically perfect. They have no physical limitations or dysfunctions to indicate or diagnose that the child has ASD at birth.

However, ASD symptoms appear as they grow older.

They start being unresponsive to calls by the age of two; they don’t look at you in the eyes when talking or playing; they don’t babble or speak, and lack body language; and some are unaware of their own security and safety, while some present with self-harm and awkward behaviour such as biting their own hand, banging their head on the wall, spinning, flapping their hand repetitively, constantly jumping and moving, etc.

This is when caregivers notice something is amiss with the child.

Although there is no population study on the extent of ASD in Malaysia, an indirect result of a 2006 feasibility study for the use of the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) in diagnosing ASD found that there are approximately 1.6 cases in every 1,000 children in Malaysia.

This study was carried out by the Health Ministry among children aged 18 to 36 months.

However, Autism Speaks – an international organisation that advocates for ASD cases worldwide – reported that the incidence of ASD is estimated to have increased from one case in every 68 children (in 2016) to one in every 59 children (in 2018).

This increase in numbers is alarming, and we should be concerned about the need for early intervention programs in order to ensure these children can function and live independently when they grow up.

In light of this, the Health Ministry has taken the initiative to provide early screening to detect ASD among younger children.

This is essential to enrol the child in an early intervention programme as soon as possible, hence optimising their potential and promoting independent living later on.

Occupational therapy for ASD

In general, autistic children are managed by a multidisciplinary team of health professionals.

Among them is an occupational therapist, who usually collaborates with the family medicine specialist, paediatrician, psychiatrist, clinical and educational psychologist, speech therapist, audiologist and special education teacher, among others.

Occupational therapy offers habilitation programmes, equipping children with ASD with skills that they may not have developed otherwise and enabling these children to function independently.

It highlights several areas of a child’s “occupation”, including activities of daily living, school and play.

These programmes are offered according to age and include gross and fine motor training, functional behaviour management, speech, language and communication intervention, adaptive skills (self-care, instrumental, play, education, etc), social skills training, sensory integration therapy, cognitive-
perceptual training, and environmental adaptation and modification. among others.

These skills will allow the child to grow and develop, as well as adapt themselves to function within the community.

Autistic children can and are able to improve over time and have the potential to live as typical children.

The government and private sectors in Malaysia offer various opportunities for autistic children to further their studies.

This begins with primary and secondary education, and continues on to post-secondary education, as well as pre-employment and skills training during their teenage years.

Along this journey, occupational therapists are responsible for analysing and assisting their abilities, assets and strengths.

Children with ASD are capable of success in life just like any other typical person through the assistance of various therapies and education programmes.

They can be moulded according to their interest, values and strengths, in order to function optimally and be independent.

Nur Atiqah Azman is a lecturer at the Perdana University School of Occupational Therapy. This article is courtesy of Perdana University. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.