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Autism - The silent epidemic

Avia Ustanny, Freelance Writer

MATTHEW DEVELOPED normally until he was one year and six months old. Then, he stopped communicating. Started screaming. Six months later, Matthew looked just like any other two-year-old, but, as his mother recalls, he would scream out in church and just do things that other people would consider antisocial.

Drinks would be on the table and Matthew would just quench his thirst from any glass. "He has no concept of yours and mine," says his Mom who lives with him in Trelawny and would rather not have her name published. Her son's problem is one of social-adjustment, she says. "He will take other people's things. He does not know danger. He will put his hand into the flushing toilet."

The experience of Matthew's mother is an increasingly familiar one. Michelle Skeete, therapist based at Mico Care Centre in Kingston, states that what she is seeing, in terms of the numbers of autistic children coming in, is an epidemic. It could be about 10 per cent of all new births she says, an amazing and shocking rate for such a small country as ours.

She sees children who display the characteristic repetitive behaviour of the autistic child on an increasingly frequent basis. An autistic child can repeat one activity all day. Flashing, the shaking of the hand in excitement or distress, is also symptomatic. They can scream for hours and frequently do when over-stimulated by sights, sounds and even textures they find offensive or particularly delightful.

In Kingston, another mother, Eulyn Lee, speaks about one of her daughters. who is all of eighteen years old, but who shouts and screams like a two-year-old when she becomes excited about anything. She is accompanied by Mom Eulyn Lee everywhere, for her own safety and protection. Very few understand and are tolerant of the needs of her child. The challenge she faces will be one that many others will have to bear by the time their children pass the three-year age marker.

Locally, autism has become the single greatest disability affecting children and families struggle to meet their needs. And the condition is an epidemic, specialists who deal with them locally say. Autism is a complex developmental ability which typically puts in its appearance during the first three years of life. It is the Result of a neurological disorder which affects the way the brain functions. According t to the centre for Disease Control and Prevention 2001, autism has been associated with between 2 to 6 persons in every 1000 in the population. Autism affects boys four times as often as girls. In 2002, other national sources put that figure at 1 in 250.

Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communications skills. Children and adults usually have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication skills as well as social interactions, and leisure and play activities.

The disorder, the experts note, make it difficult for them to communicate with others and relate to the outside world. In some cases, aggressive and/or self injurious behaviour may be manifested. Persons with autism may also display repetitive body movements such as hand flapping and rocking, unusual responses to people or attachments to objects. They may also show resistance to changes in routine .

Individuals may also experience sensitivities to the five sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Dr. Judith Tapper, local paediatric neurologist states that the increased incidence of Autism locally has much to do the with greater ability of our doctors to diagnose the Condition. The young patients, she says, present mainly language delays, social and cognitive difficulties, ritualistic behaviour. In her practice, she sees a scattering along the spectrum, ranging from those who are very involved to those with the Asperger version of the condition ­ who function at a higher level. Could there be a connection between the increased incidence of the condition and something in the environment?.

In the United States where the number of autistic children has also skyrocketed, Committee of the House Senate will soon here testimony from scientists from three countries conducting research into possible relationships between vaccines and neurological disorders, including autism.

One line of current research questions whether a mercury-based preservative used for years in children's vaccines weakened the immune systems of some children and made them more susceptible to adverse reactions to the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine. Another line contends that the it may be the one-shot combination of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine which might be causing the negative reaction. The vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella called MMR is given at 12 months and also to females in the reproductive age group.

In yet another theory, researchers of other nations have proposed that there might be a link between the vaccine ingredient thimerosol and autism. Thimerosal is the mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines. In 2001, the American centre for disease control requested that the ingredient be removed, in light of parent's concerns. Here in Jamaica, the authorities have stated their belief that such issues as are being raised abroad will only jeopardise our much valued immunisation programme.

Other scientific research which has stated that there is no link between the MMR, thimeresol, vaccinations and autism are being ignored, they contend. It has been further noted that immunising children is not only a health issue but a matter of sound economics. Every US$ dollar spent on the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine saves US $21 in later health-care costs, the experts say. But, in the case of the MMR is the health of the affected minority being sacrificed for the greater good?

The parents of autistic children want to know. Eulyn Lee, who tries her best to keep abreast of current research says that she is feeling more hopeful now. If autism has an environmental cause, then maybe something can be done to reverse the effects on her daughter, she says.

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