While there are no statistics available on the number of people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the UAE, it has been reported that most autism centres are not only operating at full capacity, but also have long waiting lists. It’s no wonder, then, that 2021 brought with it the launch of the National Autism Policy that aims at both supporting caregivers and improving the health and well-being of people with ASD. It also focuses on upgrading the skills of personnel working at ASD centres and raising the efficiency of services offered.
Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that one in 100 children has autism, with reported prevalence varying substantially across studies. For the uninitiated, ASD is a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviour. Autistic people are also frequently misunderstood because of their differences, making Autistic Pride Day – marked annually on June 18 – so vital. First celebrated in 2005, the event is rooted in instilling such individuals with pride over their neurodiversity. The Gaggler set out to support the cause, tapping Dr. Ateeq Qureshi, Senior Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about autism. Listen in.
1. What causes autism?
There is no single known cause for autism. Both genetic and environmental factors may play a role. Genetic mutations may be inherited and the probability of having autism is higher if one has an immediate family member who is autistic. Parental age (older), premature birth, low birth weight, and complications during birth are all correlated with a higher risk of having autism. There is evidence for correlations of autism with certain environmental factors such as air pollution, heavy metal exposure, and some medicines – all of which are not very well understood and being researched. Sometimes, autism can be associated with genetic disorders such as Rett syndrome or Fragile X syndrome.
2. Where do you stand on the vaccines and autism debate?
The vaccine and autism debate was settled in the mainstream scientific community many years ago, with the consensus opinion that there was no clear evidence linking the two. In fact, the original study that proposed this link had to be retracted with the author judged to have acted dishonourably. There have been several well-designed studies and analyses over the last two decades that have shown no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Despite the wealth of evidence, this idea persists, and it is important that it is debunked as the harm it is causing is very real and significant.
3. Autism is still so misunderstood – why do you think that is?
Autism is generally misunderstood as there is such a wide variety of presentations, with significant differences between those who have major needs – including 24/7 care in some cases – and those with high-functioning autism and many others in between. Media representations are not always correct. There is often a stigma attached to the term, and many people view it through the lens of that stigma. It is sometimes helpful to conceptualise it as a heterogeneous condition, and not as a disorder.
4. What exactly does the expression ‘on the spectrum’ mean?
Autism is known as a ‘spectrum’ disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms that people experience. The formal diagnosis in the DSM-5 is called autism spectrum disorder, and there is no difference between autism and autism spectrum disorder. Some people prefer to be known as being on the spectrum rather than having autism or being autistic.
5. How is autism diagnosed in young children, especially in terms of the diagnostic tools and techniques used?
Autism diagnosis entails a detailed clinical history, especially history of early development and observation of the child. There are structured assessment tools for both history and for observation, i.e. the Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI) and Autism Observation Diagnostic Schedule (ADOS). In addition, collateral information from teachers and other supplementary assessment tools to rule out associated or related disorders are also used.