1.6 in 1,000 children in Malaysia has autism: Can autism be cured though?
Break the stigma
Before I answer that question, it's essential first to know what exactly is autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) falls under the Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) cluster, which is a chronic and lifespan disorder. Generally, a complete recovery may not occur, and as such, there is no cure for ASD too.
How to diagnose an individual with ASD
According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)1, the standardised criteria include:
- Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, such as difficulty with social communication initiation and normal back-and-forth conversations
- Developing, maintaining, and understanding social relationships and non-verbal communications
- The individual has restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours such as repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech, insistence on sameness and inflexible adherence to routines, fixated interests, or strong attachment to unusual objects
- Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory inputs such as temperature, noise, lights, or movements
These conditions vary by each individual and may exist in a spectrum.
How to help someone with autism
So far, there are no treatments that have shown to be able to cure ASD effectively. However, several interventions have been developed and studied for use with young children. These interventions are designed to help reduce symptoms, improve cognitive ability and daily living skills. They're also able to maximise the potential of the individuals, enabling them to participate in the surrounding community.
One of the most used psychological interventions is behaviour intervention strategies, which helps an individual with ASD in the following areas of their everyday life:
- Social communication skills—especially at young ages when the child would naturally be gaining these skills
- Reduce the restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests
The last one, in particular, is a specific technique called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). It has been widely used among healthcare professionals and schools because it encourages positive behaviours, and discourages negative ones. In this way, it can improve a wide variety of skills.
Some children may also need speech and occupational therapy to assist with their attention, vocalisation, and socialisation. At the end of the day, individuals with ASD require individualised treatment plans. There is no one-treatment-for-all. It depends on the person's age, strengths, challenges and differences.
Due to the unique characteristics of each individual with ASD, treatment plans can be multidisciplinary. It could involve a whole team to target the individual's needs: Clinical psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, developmental paediatricians, parents, and teachers. For younger children, parent-mediated interventions are almost necessary.
Autism numbers in Malaysia
At present, there is limited data available to indicate the widespread of ASD in Malaysia. However, a small-scale study conducted by Malaysia's Ministry of Health reported that 1.6 in 1,000 children has been diagnosed with ASD level 2. The actual widespread of ASD cases is likely higher in Malaysia due to many undetected cases.
As a result, there are severe implications to the country's overall systems (education, health, society, and even economy) to develop better awareness in assisting individuals with ASD. The good news is that it's happening—slowly but surely. From universities to hospitals to schools and mental health organisations to even governmental and non-governmental agencies, these places with a voice have started raising more awareness to share hope and ways to care for these unique populations.
Nevertheless, people with ASD still face some form of stigma and discriminations. It stems from their lack of understanding of the nature of the condition and its importance for early interventions. Therefore, I hope that Malaysians—with their goal of fostering relationships with one another—can include this unique population. Stretch out your help with total sincerity—it doesn't take that much.
Sam Jeng Mun is a senior lecturer and clinical psychologist at Taylor’s University. Besides being a lecturer in private universities for the past nine years, her professional experiences also include working in the government hospital, private hospital, and private practice. In her clinical practice, she mainly conducts psychotherapy, psychological consultations, psychological workshops and talks and psychological assessments for children and adults. She is passionate about building awareness about mental health and improving the level of mental health literacy among people.