Autism Awareness Week: ‘Far-reaching lack of awareness remains’, say UAE experts

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Leading UAE psychologists are urging parents to be aware of the signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), saying there is still a far-reaching lack of awareness about the disorder.

Speaking during World Autism Acceptance Week (March 27 – April 3), Rania Ali, a psychologist from the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, says this not only leads to late diagnosis, but it can also create a lack of understanding and compassion toward those with autistic needs.


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In some cases, this can lead to teasing, bullying and unfair treatment.

Ali says more awareness will dispel some of the common misconceptions that persist.

“Some people think those with autism have low IQs, and others, conversely, believe those with autism are all highly functioning in specific areas,” she told Al Arabiya English. “The truth is that an intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur but not always, and only a small percentage of those affected have exceptional abilities in specific domains. What is key to recognize is how each individual with ASD is unique.”

Autism is a spectrum disorder which refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with speech, nonverbal communication, social skills and repetitive behavior.

The biggest myth about the disorder, according to Ali, is the belief that autistic people do not empathize with others.

“Individuals with autism experience feelings, but they don’t have the same capacity to express them. This distinction is crucial.”

Studies highlight that many symptoms of ASD can be recognized from as early as 24 months of age.

“I would encourage all parents of young babies and toddlers to make themselves aware of some of the common symptoms of ASD. By just two years of age a diagnosis by a professional can reliably be made, so I would advise any parents with concerns to seek support as near to this time as possible, to help ensure the best possible outcome,” adds Ali.

According to the expert, it is key to take notice when a child’s behaviour does not match their chronological age.

For example, parents are urged to take note if a child avoids eye contact, does not show facial expressions, does not wave goodbye, does not share interests with others or cannot point to show a parent something interesting. These could all potentially be signposts for autism and should be investigated.

Children with an autism spectrum disorder can exhibit a variety of other signs and symptoms to be mindful of, which can vary in severity and be dependent on age. Some common signs for parents to look out for include:

  • Delayed language development
  • Lack of social interest or unusual social interactions i.e., pulling individuals by the hand, without any attempt to look at them
  • Unusual play patterns, such as carrying toys around but never actually playing with them
  • Unusual communication patterns, such as knowing the alphabet, but not responding to their own name
  • Little or no initiation of social interaction
  • Inability to share or display emotions
  • Repetitive patterns of behavior, interests and activities
  • Sensory sensitivities and irritation at certain sounds, touch, taste, smell or movement
  • Overly anxious in social situations or when their routine changes

According to Ali, autism can be overlooked, especially when the symptoms are mild and when it co-occurs with other disorders.

Research has highlighted how misdiagnosis among girls may occur more frequently as they are far better at masking the symptoms than their male peers.

She said: “Early diagnosis is key as it will help to expediate treatment, which in turn will help ensure access to therapy services as soon as possible. Early intervention can also lead to improved outcomes for those with ASD.”

Martine Diab, a speech and language therapist in Dubai, adds: “There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ description for ASD. Those on the spectrum can have a wide range of strengths, challenges and abilities, as opposed to a set number of symptoms.”

“It is important to recognize and challenge such misconceptions to promote greater identification, understanding and acceptance of those living with the condition.”

“Whether mild or severe, ensuring the right support is crucial. This will involve creating a supportive and understanding environment, providing appropriate therapies or interventions, and ensuring the young person has access to the resources and support they need to thrive.”

“Finally, at any stage when a child is not meeting their developmental milestones, I would advise parents to seek professional evaluations, while keeping in mind that not all delays or behaviors will be due to ASD.”

Dr Manoj Singh, a consultant paediatric neurologist, told Al Arabiya English that more awareness is needed about autism.

“Autism is characterized by poor social and communication skills and can lead to comorbidities including sleep problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). Its incidence is increasing and needs early diagnosis and intervention by multidisciplinary teams.”

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