Can a simple childhood game detect autism early? We asked childcare expert and occupational therapist Meg Faure for her view, as well as the key sign of autism you shouldn’t ignore.
A recent study, published in The European Journal of Neuroscienc, suggests Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be spotted in little ones as young as four months old, simply by watching how they respond to social interaction with another person, as well as during games such as peek-a-boo or action songs like Incy Wincy Spider.
“We found babies who will go on to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at toddler age show lower levels of brain activity when playing interactive social games, or watching people yawn or laugh,” says Dr Sarah-Lloyd Fox who led the study.
While there is no definitive cure for ASD, detecting it early in children is one of the best ways to manage the disorder and improve a child’s social skills throughout their life, believes Meg, who agrees with the study findings.
We asked Meg to elaborate a little more on the key sign of autism (highlighted in the study) that parents should take note of.
Here are her 5 take-away points:
How your child interacts on a social level is a key sign of whether they have symptoms of ASD:
- “If your child doesn’t make eye contact with you and isn’t smiling by 10 weeks, or if she’s not engaging with you at all by the time she reaches the six-month mark. If there’s no eye contact, smiling or laughing, then it’s worth having her checked,” says Meg.
- Pointing is also an important indicator of your child’s ability to interact and communicate. “Little ones should be pointing by the age of 12 months. In fact, the simple act of pointing tells a lot about your child’s understanding of the world around her. If she points to others, it means she is using body gestures to show that she’s grasping the concept of mind-mindedness,” says Meg. Mind-mindedness refers to the idea that your child understands she’s seeing another person with their own mind and personality that’s separate from her own. “We see that most children with some form of ASD don’t grasp this concept at all and are only aware of themselves,” explains Meg.
- “Also, if your child isn’t speaking any words by the time she’s between the ages of two to three years, there could be a link to ASD,” says Meg.
You can use childhood games to help you identify any potential problems
Social games are a great way to identify whether your child is aware of you and others, as they encourage one-on-one communication and interaction. “If your little one is more comfortable with inanimate objects such as toys and screens like TV programmes and games, rather than social interaction, I would suggest seeing a specialist,” says Meg.
However, ASD is a complex disorder and I always advise parents to be careful of diagnosing it purely on how their child engages with certain social activities,” explains Meg. “This should only serve as a clue as to whether to take your child for further testing,” she adds.
A few signs of ASD to watch out for…
- Little to no social interaction such as smiling, cooing, laughing or eye contact
- No pointing between the ages of 12 to18 months
- The idea that your child is in her own world, and isn’t aware of others around her (the concept of mind-mindedness)
- Little non-verbal signalling or body language
- Less than 18 to 20 words by 18 to 24 months.
The benefits of picking up ASD early
Studies have shown that about 10% of children who have been diagnosed with ASD in infancy will show great improvement by the time they hit their teens. “In fact, there are immense benefits of picking up ASD early – as you can change the trajectory quite a bit,” says Meg.
“As occupational therapists, we focus heavily on sensory integration activities where we encourage little ones to engage with others and the world around them. We facilitate plenty of one-on-one interaction – on the floor and in what we call circles of communication, where we focus on looking, talking, returning a smile etc. This is often referred to as DIR Floor Time which has shown great promise in helping children with signs and symptoms of ASD.”
More about DIR floor time
DIR is a model that was developed by child psychiatrist Dr Stanley Greenspan, to help children with educational, social-emotional, mental health, and/or developmental challenges. The term DIR stands for developmental, individual differences and a relationship-based model.
In a nutshell, DIR Floor Time is all about getting to know and understand a child’s unique character – including where they are currently and where they are headed, from an emotional and developmental point of view.
According to the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning (IDLC) in the US, DIR Floor Time is a specific technique which experts use to both follow a child’s natural emotional interests (let the child take the lead) and at the same time, challenging them to reach their full social, emotional and intellectual potential.
If your little one is showing signs of ASD, seek advice from an expert right away
Meg believes early intervention is critical. She says, “There’s no harm having your child assessed by your paediatrician or occupational therapist if you pick up any signs of ASD when interacting with him.”
Use the following social activities to better understand your little one’s social capabilities:
- Smiling and talking to your baby
- Singing songs or reading to your child
- Splashing water in the bath
- Holding a mirror up to your child’s face
- Baby massage.
Looking for an occupational therapist? Contact the Occupational Therapy Association of South Africa; 012 362 5457 or visit www.otasa.org.za
You can also visit www.megfaure.com to book a consultation.
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