Living with Autism – Curable versus Manageable

“We live in a world where communication and socialisation form an integral part of our daily lives,” says Elaine Brand, of The DreamTree School. Difficulties in these spheres present many challenges to people with autism. “Early diagnoses, together with proper care, can go a long way to enabling children with autism to lead full lives,” emphasises Brand.

Despite international controversy around ‘treatments’ such as the CD Protocol which involves the oral administration of chlorine dioxide to ‘cure’ autism, Brand goes on to stress that words such as ‘curable’ and ‘treatment’ are not effective words for autism when considered in the medical sense. “Autism is not something that can be removed or separated from the individual. We have found it is far more beneficial to focus on working with the individual by helping them to develop skills, which in turn results in a better integration into society and greater independence.”

However, Brand goes on to add that it is important to note that this does not render autism as ‘unchangeable’. “With appropriate intervention, especially early intervention and hard work, we have seen progress in every single child we have worked with.”

Brand is clear on The DreamTree School’s focus. “We focus on an interdisciplinary approach involving close collaboration with any therapists and have found that this works best when paired with interested and involved parents. Further, we do not advise parents with regards to medical treatments as we believe that this is best supervised by medical doctors. We therefore prefer words such as ‘independence’, ‘progress’ and ‘inclusion’, as opposed to ‘curable’ and ‘treatment’.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (Autism) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is currently estimated to affect 1 in 88 children. The key features of autism are difficulties in language, communication and social interaction as well as the presence of restricted or repetitive thought patterns and behaviours. People with autism will also often have sensory processing difficulties, resulting in under or over sensitivity to sights, sounds, tastes and textures.

“It manifests behaviourally,” continues Brand. There are no blood tests or scans to diagnose autism. “Diagnoses are made by teams of medical professionals, based on observed behaviours and historical accounts.” Such a team may include psychologists, psychiatrists, paediatricians, neurologists, speech and occupational therapists. There are also various screening tools, of which the ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule) is most often used to make a diagnosis.  Whilst the cause of autism remains elusive, available research indicates that both a genetic predisposition and certain environmental factors do play a role in its development.

“Whilst the majority of children are diagnosed between the ages of four and five, it is possible to render a diagnosis as early as age three,” says Brand. She stresses that should a parent notice any developmental delay in their child, to immediately seek professional help. “An early diagnosis enables early intervention, crucial in the care of autism,” continues Brand. From an early age, children with autism tend to need intervention to minimise certain deficits and to enable them to lead full lives and promote independence later in life.

“When a child is first diagnosed, parents should try to learn all they can about autism spectrum disorder and the possible help available for their child,” says Brand. Available resources include Autism South Africa, or local regional chapters such as Autism Western Cape, who are able to offer assistance and guidance in setting up a home or other relevant programme. “It is important for a child on the autism spectrum to have firm boundaries and structure as these basic fundamentals result in the child feeling safe,” continues Brand. She goes on to add that whilst different options are available such as a home tutor versus an early intervention centre, it is important to adopt the approach most suitable to the individual child in order to ensure the best outcome.