Understanding autism in children

A look at autism, a condition with symptoms ranging from being socially awkward to displaying disruptive and physically aggressive behaviour.


Adeline Lim first twigged that something wasn’t right with her then-1-year-old son, Jayden, because he didn’t respond to her when she called his name; he was so engrossed in his own little world of toys.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she noticed later that her son wasn’t really talking and “all the key milestones were a little late”. “My husband thought I was paranoid and my mum said I was crazy. But these things — you just know.”

Now 8, Jayden was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) just before he turned 3, after she engaged a psychologist to observe him at home. At that time, he had the cognitive capacity of a 5-month-old.

Statistics also show that boys are three to five times more likely to have autism than girls, although experts are unable to pinpoint reasons why. In addition, other conditions, such as Fragile X syndrome (a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental problems including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment) and tuberous sclerosis (a genetic disease that causes benign tumours to grow in the brain and on other vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, eyes, lungs and skin) may accompany autism.

Signs of autism

Children with ASD either have difficulties communicating — both verbally and non-verbally — or face delays in areas like social interaction. They often engage in repetitive behaviour, feel a need to adhere to specific routines or are preoccupied with certain objects, explains Alex Liau, clinical director of Nurture Pods Early Intervention Centre, an autism education school at Novena Specialist Centre.

Common signs these children exhibit include not being able to make eye contact and delays in language acquisition. They also have difficulty looking in the same direction as another person, and having difficulty relating to and showing interest in others.

How ASD affects people varies widely as this disorder ranges in severity. Every child within the autism spectrum has unique abilities, symptoms and challenges. The most severe being “low” functioning and the least severe being “high” functioning. Low-functioning children may throw temper tantrums or behave in a socially inappropriate manner, while high-functioning ones are able to manage their own behaviour, although they are a little awkward and find it difficult to make friends.

Understanding the condition

As a toddler, Jayden had frequent meltdowns when he became frustrated with unfamiliar places and situations. Lim said her family could only dine at obscure little places, so that his behaviour would not affect other patrons. She says, “It was pretty traumatic. People who don’t understand simply think the child is misbehaving.”

A stickler for routines, he’d always insist that his parents drive home using only a particular route, no matter which direction they had come from. Lim recalls, “He had to go by that one way. Otherwise, he’d scream and go hysterical — he had no other way to express himself.”

Though Lim — who has two younger children, Jamie, 1, and Ashley, 5 — was hesitant about adding to her brood, she’s glad she did. “I think having siblings did help him, as Ashley often tries to get him out of his shell,” she chuckles.

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