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Times of India
20 December 2010
Varanasi, India

While psychologists and experts in cognitive science are fast accepting the social dimension of autistic children who have impaired social interaction and communication and often exhibit restricted and repetitive behaviour, most of them also believe that autism should be accepted as a 'difference' and not treated as a 'disorder'.

"Social deficits distinguish autism and the related autism spectrum disorders (ASD) from other developmental disorders and unusual social development becomes apparent early in the childhood," said Prof Matthew Belmonte, an expert of social cognition in autistic children from the US, while talking to TOI on Monday. "Autistic children show less attention to social stimuli, smile and look at others less often and respond less to their own name, making it increasingly difficult to keep them in a group and let them socialise. Similarly, autistic toddlers differ more strikingly from social norms as they have less eye contact and turn–taking and do not have the ability to use simple movements to express them," he informed.

Prof Belmonte was in the city to attend the three–day international seminar on recent advances in cognitive science that concluded at the BHU on Monday.

Saying that children with high–functioning autism suffered from more intense and frequent loneliness compared to non–autistic peers, Prof Belmonte emphasised that making and maintaining friendships often proved to be difficult for those with autism. For them, the quality of friendship, not the number of friends, predicted how lonely they felt. "Functional friendships, such as those resulting in invitations to parties, may affect the quality of life more deeply," he added.

However, the expert also agreed that since autistic children lacked the ability to correlate a number of pieces of information, it was the high construal cognition in them that was needed to be shifted to low construal understanding. "The children may not know the details of the information given to them but they can identify some of the things that can trigger better understanding of the subject when it is brought in practice," said Prof Belmonte. "Even, early behavioural or cognitive intervention can help autistic children gain self–care, social and communication skills," he added.

It is also worth mentioning that the prevalence of autism is between one to two per 1,000 persons worldwide and incidence of the disorder have been reported to be increasing over the past three decades.

What is Autism

Autism is a disorder of neural development characterised by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behaviour. These signs begin before a child is three years old. Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organise. It is one of three recognised disorders in the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), the other two being Asperger syndrome, which lacks delays in cognitive development and language, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified (commonly abbreviated as PDD–NOS), which is diagnosed when the full set of criteria for autism or Asperger syndrome are not met.

Symptoms of Autism

Impairments in social interaction

Impairments in communication

Restricted interests

Repetitive behaviour

A typical eating habit

Tendency to remain lonely or living in isolation

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