What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior. The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity.

While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, intensive, early treatment can make a big difference in the lives of many children.


What are the signs and symptoms?

People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention. These characteristics can make life very challenging.

  1. Social Interaction and communication
  • Avoid or does not keep eye contact
  • Does not respond to name by 9 months of age
  • Does not share interests with others by 15 months of age
  • Does not notice when others are hurt or upset by 24 months of age
  1. Restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests
  • Lines up toys or other objects and gets upset when order is changed
  • Repeats words or phrases over and over (called echolalia)
  • Has obsessive interests
  • Must follow certain routines
  • Flap hands, rocks body and spin self in circles
  1. Other Characteristics of ASD
  • Delayed in speech and motor skills
  • Delayed in cognitive and learning skills
  • Unusual eating and sleeping habits
  • Lack of fear or more fear than expected


How is it diagnosed?

Early diagnosis can make a huge difference in the lives of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families.

But it’s not always easy to make an ASD diagnosis. There’s no lab test for it, so doctors rely on observing the behaviors of very young children and listening to the concerns of their parents.

If you suspect that your child may have  autism, you can bring your child to a child psychologist, developmental pediatrician or a neurologist for a comprehensive assessment. For an official diagnosis, your child must meet the standards of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

To meet diagnostic criteria for ASD according to DSM-5, a child must have persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction plus at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviors.


What are the treatments for kids with autism?

There is currently no cure exists for autism spectrum disorder, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. The goal of treatment is to maximize your child’s ability to function by reducing autism spectrum disorder symptoms and supporting development and learning. Early intervention during the preschool years can help your child learn critical social, communication, functional and behavioral skills.Therefore, treatment plans usually involve multiple professionals and are catered toward the individual. It is important that providers communicate with each other and the person with ASD and their family to ensure that treatment goals and progress are meeting expectations.

The most common therapy for people with ASD is Speech and Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy.

Speech and Language Therapy (ST) helps to improve the person’s understanding and use of speech and language. Some people with ASD communicate verbally. Others may communicate through the use of signs, gestures, pictures, or an electronic communication device.

Occupational Therapy (OT) teaches skills that help the person live as independently as possible. Skills may include dressing, eating, bathing, and relating to people. Occupational therapy can also include:

  • Sensory Integration Therapy to help improve responses to sensory input that may be restrictive or overwhelming.
  • Physical Therapy can help improve physical skills, such as fine movements of the analysis fingers or larger movements of the trunk and body.

Other treatments include behavioral approach treatment such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), social relational approach treatment such as Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and pharmacological approach treatment to improve co-occuring symptoms that can help children with autism function better. For example, medication to manage high energy levels, inability to focus, seizures, sleeping problems and gastrointestinal problems.


Educational Implications

In the early years, parents can send their kid with autism to Early Intervention centres. Early Intervention centres that specializes in managing children with autism and various disabilities provide holistic approach to help their students coping in academic skills, social interaction and communication skills, sensory and motor skills as well as daily living skills.

For school-aged kids, the choices of education systems available may be limited.  A child on the autism spectrum can be taught partly in both a special education program and the regular classroom. This is inclusion program which is only available in selected public schools. There are public schools which provide special education from primary up to secondary years (Sekolah Pendidikan Khas).

Parents can also opt for special schools that are managed by private or non-governmental organisations. To name a few, National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM), Taarana Special Needs Education, Einstein Special Needs Education, etc. Other options may be home-based schooling and private international schools which provide supportive learning hub system for children with special needs. Parents may need to visit to the schools and explore in person to find out what are the supports given in the schools. Some schools also provide Personal Learning Assistant (PLA)to assist the student in the classroom.