Parents encouraged to seek medical attention if signs of autism

Head of the pediatric unit at the hospital, Dr Shivon Belle Jarvis
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By Theresa Goodwin

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Limited or no eye contact from a 6-months-old toddler, no big smiles, or little or no sharing of facial expressions by 9-months, are some of the warning signs parents can look for if they are concerned that their child may be suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Head of the Pediatric Unit of the Mount St John’s Medical Centre (MSJMC), Dr Shivon Belle Jarvis, advised yesterday that once these signs are evident, a parent or guardian must immediately seek medical attention.

“If by 12-months the child is not babbling or shows little response to name, concerning; 16-months, few words, concerning; by 24-months, if they are not saying two-word phrases, again concerning,” Belle Jarvis said.

“At any age, if they have lost previously acquired speech, avoiding eye contact, delayed language development or repeating words, those are the things that should motivate parents to seek medical attention for their child.”

The medical professional also emphasised that there are no special blood tests to diagnose autism.

Special needs advocate and parent, Salma Crump (Social media photo)

Diagnosis is usually determined through the screening of the child, by observing and interaction with the child and by speaking to the parents about the child’s ability, followed by a diagnostic test through a modified chart that is designed for toddlers.

“It is something the parents can actually use; they can go online and basically fill in the questions that are asked, and they would receive a score which would indicate that the toddler likely has autism.”

Screening, Dr Belle Jarvis explained, is routinely done at 12 months and again at 18 months. However, the signs and symptoms could be identified within the first year of a child’s life, and a definitive diagnosis could be made within two years, depending on what jurisdiction the family is in.

ASD is a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication.

Restrictive repetitive behavior are side effects of ASD, and the severity of symptoms are different in each person.

Antigua and Barbuda joined with the rest of the world on April 2nd to celebrate World Autism Day to create greater awareness about the medical condition.

To draw recognition to the cause, the hospital has launched a month-long campaign dubbed Light it up Blue, which is designed to shine the light on autism and increase greater understanding and acceptance for children, individuals and families across the global.

Meanwhile, advocate and parent of a child with ASD, Salma Crump, shared that her son was officially diagnosed when he was almost 3 years old, although she discovered the signs earlier.

She explained that during the initial stages, it appeared that her son’s medical practitioner at the time was not aware of the condition which prompted her to conducted her own research based on signs that she had observed.

Crump also expressed concern about the level of support that is offered to parents, noting that the services are limited and most families have had to pay for those services privately.

“We have had to make a lot of sacrifices and are still making those sacrifices.  Speech therapy, bringing in folks to do behavioral therapy for years, and homeschooling which is very costly, private schooling, and having a shadow with our son in school. We have had to sacrifice a lot, but there are so many families who can’t even begin to make that sacrifice, and these services have to be ongoing,” Crump said.

Acknowledging that there is room for improvement, Dr Belle Jarvis also commended the efforts of the staff at the Victory Centre and Adele School who have provided special education needs for children with ASD and other challenges.

She indicated further that her team works closely with the Family and Social Services Department to provide assistance to families where speech therapy is concerned.

For physiotherapy, this service is available at the hospital as well as the Care Project at the Old Holberton hospital compound; occupational therapy is also available at the care project.

Plans are also in the pipeline to create a support group to provide further assistance to parents.

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