Skip links

[Feature Article] Free Malaysia Today: Trouble Connecting Smile to Happiness

Trouble connecting smile to happiness

Aneesa Alphonsus | April 9, 2012

Ever seen a parent looking haplessly at their screaming child, throwing himself about? You might have witnessed an autistic child in the throes of frustration.


Picture this: A little girl, Farah, says hello to a little boy who doesn’t acknowledge her greeting, turning his back and returning to the toy he was playing with. Farah thinks the boy doesn’t like her and frankly, she feels that it was a little rude of him to turn away.

What Farah doesn’t know is that the boy is autistic. He didn’t understand her greeting and dealt with it the only way he could. He had no idea that he had just offended her.

While many of us have heard about autism and maybe even met with autistic children and grown-ups, there is still a dearth of understanding when it comes to why they behave the way they do.

Autism causes a child to experience the world differently from the way most of their peers do. It’s hard for children with autism to speak with other people and express themselves using words.

Most of them usually keep to themselves and many can’t communicate without special help.

They also may react to what’s going on around them in unusual ways. Normal sounds may really bother someone with autism – so much so that the person covers his or her ears. Being touched, even in a gentle way, may make them feel uncomfortable.

Jochebed Isaacs, director of The Early Autism Project, said that most autistic children possess compulsive behaviour and may not understand things such as safety issues.

“Children with autism often can’t make connections that other children make easily. For example, when someone smiles, you know the smiling person is happy or being friendly.

“But a kid with autism may have trouble connecting that smile with the person’s happy feelings.

“A child who has autism also has trouble linking words to their meanings. Imagine trying to understand what a person is saying if you didn’t know what her words really mean. It is doubly frustrating then if a child can’t come up with the right words to express his or her own thoughts,” she said.

Capacity to learn

Isaacs added that at least 50% of autistic children do have a capacity for learning and possess the potential to be rapid learners.

She also explained that many of these children are not aggressive by nature, only that they might not have a proper outlet for communication and use aggression as an avenue to express their feelings and thoughts.

Autism affects about one in every 150 children, but no one knows what causes it.

Some medical researches think that children might be more likely to get autism because it or similar disorders run in their families. Many different studies point to everything from environmental pollution to genetic triggers to the possibility of an immune-system overload.

The brain contains over 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron may have hundreds or thousands of connections that carry messages to other nerve cells in the brain and body. The connections and the chemical messengers they send (called neurotransmitters) let the neurons that help a person see, feel, move, remember, and work together as they should.

For some reason, some of the cells and connections in the brain of an autistic child – especially those that affect communication, emotions, and senses – don’t develop properly or get damaged.

Children with mild autism sometimes can go on to attend regular school, grow up and be able to live on their own. But most others with autism need calmer, more orderly surroundings.

There are several possible reasons why the autism rate continues to rise. More children are being diagnosed by age three, an important change, given that early intervention can vastly improve treatment.

Hope is found in doctors who are getting better at diagnosing autism and communities which getting much better at providing services to children with autism.

Individualised intervention

One such centre is Isaacs’ Early Autism Project Malaysia. It offers a programme and clinic for the treatment of children with autism based on the work of Dr Ivar Lovaas.

The foundation provides intensive and individualised behavioural intervention for children with autism, emphasising proven approaches, natural environment generalisation, parental involvement and school consultation.

Autism is a lifelong disorder and challenge and while autistic children might fare well at specialised learning centres like EAP, they might encounter further difficulties when they progress to the major milestones of ageing.

The children at EAP are given individual attention by the therapists – there are five therapists to four children. The centre currently takes no more than 16 children at a time who spend between 30 and 35 hours a week at the centre learning specific skills.

These include understanding and using language, communicating with people and making friendships, building age appropriate and symbolic play skills, increasing conceptual thinking and cognitive skills and developing school readiness skills.

All children first meet with an EAP consultant to ensure that the programme is clinically appropriate for their needs. Recent testing in three areas of development (cognition, communication and adaptive skills) is required. Follow-up assessment every 12 months is also required to monitor progress. These evaluations can be obtained through Early Autism Project or through an independent psychologist.

The Early Autism Project Malaysia provides ongoing therapeutic treatment for families in the Klang Valley. To serve families in other locations outside the Klang Valley (Singapore or Sabah and Sarawak), EAP provides training workshops with follow-up supervision.

When asked what would be the biggest misconception about autistic children, Isaacs shared that it would have to be that all of them exhibit these signs: hand-flapping, walking tip-toed or even rocking themselves back and forth. Issacs added that more awareness about autism is needed so people wouldn’t be so quick to judge something they don’t understand.

“The thing with autism is this, there is no facial indications of a disorder unlike those who have Down’s Syndrome.

Autistic Awareness Month

Autistic children look normal and most parents don’t know they have an autistic child until much later.

Issacs added, “So one can only imagine how they might feel – to have this child, and cultivate hopes and dreams for them, only to find out that their son or daughter will never be like most children.

“It’s heartbreaking to a large degree and credit must be given to the therapists and parents who forge ahead to equip these children with a shot at living a regular life.”

In light of April being Austic Awareness Month, EAP is organising its Annual Walk For Autism which will take place on April 28 from 7.30am-noon at Bangkung Park, Jalan Jejawi, Bukit Bandaraya Bangsar. There is an admission fee of RM25. Children below 12 take part for free.

For more information, please visit www.eapmalaysia.blogspot and or call EAP at 03-20940421

*This page has been taken from the Free Malaysia Today website.