School Starters Out into the World : Learning Difficulties Helping them through (part 2) - Autistic spectrum disorders A complex condition

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Delay, difficulty, or disability? Understanding the difference

Many children experience delays in reaching their milestones, and around five percent of children have some form of learning difficulty. If there are concerns about your child’s development, health professionals will use terms like “developmental delay” in your child’s early years. This does not always mean that your child has a learning disability.

Q: Global developmental delay, learning difficulty, or learning disability?
A: If your child’s development is significantly delayed in a number of areas, she may be described as having a “global developmental delay.” When she is older and her abilities can be assessed more accurately, this term may be changed to learning disability. A learning disability is a pocket of relative weakness within the child’s overall capacity to learn. Some children have relative weaknesses reading written language, writing, understanding spoken language, or putting their ideas into words. Only two to three percent of children have a learning disability, and 80 percent of these are mild. If your child does not meet the criteria, she will be referred to as having learning difficulties. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, which is confusing for parents. Ask professionals to clarify what they’re saying if you’re not sure.

If your child has a learning problem, it may take her longer to learn how to do certain tasks, she will require more support at home and school, and she will perform at a lower level than her peers. She may also experience some difficulties in managing her behavior and emotions. Some children are born with genetic conditions, such as Down’s syndrome, that result in some learning disabilities. In most cases, however, the exact cause of a child’s difficulties is unknown.

If the difficulties were picked up at a routine doctor’s visit, you may already be in contact with specialists who will arrange testing as necessary. If learning problems have become apparent since school started, you could be referred to an educational psychologist. You can also talk to your pediatrician about referral to a specialist, clinical psychologist, nurse specialist, speech and language therapist, or occupational or physiotherapist.

Q: What can I do to help?
A: Your regular strategies at home may need to be adapted to your child’s special needs, so attending a parenting group for children with additional needs could be helpful. Break tasks down into small steps to help her learn and give lots of praise, making it clear exactly what you are pleased with. Keep your instructions short and to the point; using pictures can help. Raising a child with learning problems is demanding, but there is lots of support and help out there.

Learning problems can result in low self-esteem and feelings of frustration, so make sure your child has plenty of time to engage in activities that he or she enjoys as well.

Autistic spectrum disorders A complex condition

An autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the way your child understands the world and how he relates to others. ASD is an umbrella term that includes autism, high functioning autism, and Asperger’s syndrome. Everyone with an ASD has difficulties in three main areas: communication and social interaction, rigid thinking, and behavior. These are known as the “triad of impairments.” Children with very low, average, or high intelligence may have an ASD. Boys are three to four times more likely to receive this diagnosis.

Q: What does it mean for my child?
A: Children with an ASD will experience difficulties in understanding the social rules of communication, relating to other people in a meaningful way, being flexible, and using imagination. However, all children are affected differently. For example, some may struggle to develop language, whereas others may have excellent language skills but only want to talk about their particular interest. Some children may also be hyper- (over) or hypo- (under) sensitive in one or more of their senses. Intense interests and routines are also common.

Some of these behaviors are also found in children who do not have an ASD. For example, if your child is very interested in a particular cartoon character, he may have books, toys, themed clothing, sheets, bedroom curtains, and favorite DVDs of them that he watches over and over again. The list of behaviors associated with ASD is very broad, and having a handful of traits does not mean your child is autistic. Children with an ASD have a unique way of looking at the world, which can result in particular strengths, such as the ability to focus on detail and an excellent memory.

A very small number of individuals (known as autistic savants) have exceptional mathematical, memory, artistic, or musical skills. These abilities include calendar memory (for example, calculating the day of the week for any given date in history in seconds), in-depth knowledge of particular subjects, and the ability to draw fantastically detailed scenes from memory alone or to play complex pieces of music after hearing them just once.

Q: How do I get my child assessed?
A: If you think that your child might have an ASD, speak to your pediatrician, who can arrange for referral to a specialist. Assessments are usually conducted by at least two of the following professionals: pediatrician, psychiatrist, speech and language therapist, educational or clinical psychologist, or neurologist.
Q: What causes it?
A: At present the exact causes of ASDs are unknown. Various theories have been proposed, and many experts believe that the wide range of behaviors associated with an ASD may not result from a single cause. A number of recent research studies have concluded that there is absolutely no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the original study that established a link has been widely discredited. There is no evidence that single vaccines are safer or as effective. One thing that is known for certain is that parents are not responsible for their child’s difficulties with ASD.
Q: What can I do to help?
A: Individuals with an ASD may have a wide range of difficulties, so working closely with professionals from health, education, and social perspectives will result in the best outcome for your child. There is no cure at present. However, early intervention can help you understand the unique ways in which having an ASD affects your child, and will help you promote communication skills, build your child’s relationships, and manage difficult behavior. Speak to your pediatrician or one of the national organizations that represent people with ASDs to find out about groups and courses in your area.
Helping hand

A child with an ASD may struggle in a number of areas. However, early intervention and support will make things easier.

Child genius

A very few children with autism, known as autistic savants, display amazing abilities such as enhanced musical or mathematical skills.

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