One in a thousand children are born with autism, a condition for which there's no cure and no medical treatment. But it can be managed. Peta Newbold reports:
When seven-year old twins Corey and Harley Williams returned home after watching the movie 'Chicken Run' they immediately began recreating the movie's chicken coup using lego bricks.
"They built it in perfect detail" said their mum Tamara. That would seem like an extraordinary feat for any child but she wasn't surprised.
Like many autistic children Corey and Harley have a powerful visual recall, but what they do have trouble with is so called 'simple' things like looking people in the eye, flashing a smile, and cuddling.
Oops! wrong planet.
Autism is probably a brain abnormality in which sensory messages and communication are impaired.
There's no single cause that we know of, but the latest research seems to indicate there's a strong genetic link.
People with autism have varying degrees of difficulties with communication and social behaviour, but there's another problem that's far more devastating.
"They simply don't understand our world and the way we interact with it," said Tamara Williams.
"Whoever coined the phrase 'Oops, wrong planet' got it absolutely right, it's as if autistic people are aliens who've found themselves stranded on a strange planet that makes no sense to them at all. No wonder they sometimes scream with frustration."
The dark ages
If this was the fifties, Tamara would have been targeted by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim who proposed that autistic children were psychiatrically impaired because they had unemotional, unaffectionate mothers!
Fortunately we are out of the dark ages now and there's much better assessment and diagnosis these days.
Now autism in children is generally recognised before the age of 36 months but new research from the US could result in an accurate diagnosis for toddlers as young as 18 months.
The study was carried out at the University of Washington Autism Center and presented to last month's annual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.
It found that autistic children, unlike normally developing and mentally retarded children, did not react to a photograph of their mother, but did respond to a picture of their favourite toy.
What that suggested was that the impairment of the part of the brain that is responsible for facial recognition might be one of the earliest signs of autism.
That's highly significant because according to Sydney researcher Dr Trevor Clark: "The sooner you can work with a child who has autism, the greater the chance of reducing the impact the disability will have on their lives"
He is also the Principle of Wetherill Park School, one of the few Australian schools devoted to children with Autism.
"In the 13 years that I've been here, I have seen children become much easier to manage", he said, "that may be due to the success of early intervention programmes and better behavioural and education programmes."
There is no cure for autism and no medical treatment for the condition itself, but there is a range of programmes available that can be tailored to each child depending on how severely they are affected.
The autism spectrum
The condition has only been recognised since the early forties and then it was estimated that there were around 3 autistic births in every ten thousand.
We've now learned that there's a whole spectrum of autism ranging from severe, to a 'higher functioning' group called 'Asperger Disorder', and if you add all those together that's 1 in a thousand children who are born with some degree of autism.
"That's a huge number and a huge problem for the Australian community," said Dr Clark.
Children with extraordinary talents
Dr Clark has just completed his PhD on savant autistic children. That's around 10 percent of children with autism who also have some special ability, like Raymond Babbage, the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie 'Rain Man' who had a perfect visual recall for numbers.
He was trying to find out whether children with these kinds of abilities could benefit from them in some way.
He concluded that the skills could be harnessed if:
- The child is provided with a functional educational programme, and
- Provided with a mentor..someone outside their school who is prepared to foster and develop their talent.
More funding..better chance in life
But that comes down to government and community support, and for Dr Clark and Autism Awareness Week, the big issue is 'Service Provision'.
The autistic community of adults with the condition, parents, teachers and health professionals are lobbying for increased government funding for autism in a climate where funding for the disabled generally has been reduced.
But according to Dr Clark "There's a huge funding gap in the area of high functioning autistic people and that's where extra services could make a big difference. For instance it might be possible to help many of them join the workforce."
Living with autism
Meanwhile families like the Williams struggle on with the reality of autism each day.
Tamara is also bringing up a 'normal' son Dillon, who's 4, so she's really got her hands full. But life isn't all heartache.
She's an artist and apart from the twins autistic genes..wherever they came from..it looks as if she's responsible for passing down some other extraordinary genetic material too.
She says Corey and Harley are wonderfully creative and love to express themselves using paint and clay.
And there are moments of real joy. Like the time Corey said something that made her realise that for the first time he regards her as more than just a familiar object around the place.
She says the twins are learning to tolerate affection too. "I hope that one day they meet very understanding partners and have long and happy relationships.
In the meantime I'm going to do everything I can to help them learn the skills they need to function in our very strange society."