Monday, December 6, 2010

Early Intervention in Autism - it works

Autism, in its broadest interpretation, has a prevalence of about 1:110 population. There is a severe shortage of early intervention facilities for persons with autism in India. World Disability Day is commemorated on 3rd December. Autism is not specifically included as a disability in the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. This may be contributing to the lack of funding for early intervention facilities.

Protodeclarative pointing - joint attention
 Disability in autism manifests during infancy in three domains
  1. Social - Infants with autism show delays in smiling, gazing at their mothers and responding to their names and gesturing (e.g., pointing, waving bye-bye). This pattern continues, with the most impaired children growing to be avoidant or aloof from all social interaction.
  2. Communication - Infants and toddlers with autism have delays in babbling, using single words, and forming sentences. Effective language acquisition and use remains a problem throughout life. 50% of people with autism never learn to speak.
  3. Behavioural - Children with autism have difficulty tolerating any changes in routine leading to frequent tantrums. They display repetitive movements of the hands in front of the face, later giving rise to other peculiar and stereotyped movements and behaviours that stigmatise them as individuals.
These disabilities affect the ability of the person with autism to live independently and to carry out normal day-to-day activities of life

Various treatments clamour for the attention of parents of children with autism. These include HBOT (Hyperbaric oxygen therapy), chelation, animal therapies (dolphins, horses), various diets, and secret therapies. Despite celebrity and other endorsements there is no unbiased evidence that any of these therapies is effective, they are never curative. At best they are harmless and provide some diversion for the child and caregivers, at worst they can be life threatening.

Early intervention is effective in autism (Dawson et al 2010). The earlier the intervention the better. Effective early intervention programs can reduce disability to the extent that after two years nearly 30% of affected children no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for autism. There are numerous programs based on different philosophies and strategies, but most have some common components. Educational and behavioural techniques form the mainstay of these programs. Family involvement is essential. There is currently no evidence that any one program is better than the other.

Educational interventions
  • Most programs involve 15 to 25 hours of intervention a week. They capitalize on natural tendency of children with autism to respond to visual structure, routines, schedules, and predictability.
  • Good programs incorporate the child’s current interests and actively engage the child in a predictable environment with few distractions.
  • They incorporate effective and systematic instructional approaches and use standard behavioural principles. The aim is generalization and maintenance of skills learned in therapy to life situations.
Behavioural interventions
  • Challenging behaviours are managed with functional behavioural assessment and positive behavioural supports

Before starting on an Early Intervention program parents should check that the program
1. Is conducted by qualified professionals
2. Addresses deficit areas
  • Inability to attend to relevant aspects of the environment, shift attention, and imitate the language and actions of others
  • Difficulty in social interactions, including appropriate play with toys and others, and symbolic and imaginative play
  • Difficulty with language comprehension and use, and functional communication.
3. Focuses on long-term outcomes
4. Considers individual developmental level and formulates goals.

I understand the anxiety of a parent confronted with a diagnosis of autism in their child. Unfortunately there are no quick-fix treatments or miraculous cures. Early intervention is time consuming and labour intensive, but in the long run it pays off.

Geraldine Dawson, Sally Rogers, Jeffrey Munson, Milani Smith, Jamie Winter, Jessica Greenson, Amy Donaldson, and Jennifer Varley. Randomized, Controlled Trial of an Intervention for Toddlers with Autism: The Early Start Denver Model. Pediatrics 2010; 125: e17-e23

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is discipline harming my child?

Last Sunday, 14th November was Children's Day. The papers and supplements were full of articles about children and how to parent them. The need to let the child do whatever he or she wanted to do was stressed. Some articles went so far as to highlight families where the child's every whim was indulged. Until a worried parent of a five-year-old asked our counsellor
Is discipline harming my child?

The message from these articles being
If you love them set them free - from your control

Does it actually matter as to how you parent your child?
Well, there are some associations between parenting styles and outcomes for the child.

Parenting Styles
4 Parenting Styles based on Responsiveness and Demands
The concept of parenting style has evolved through three major influences
  1. The differentiation of parenting style into four types based on "parental responsiveness" and "parental demandingness" by Maccoby and Martin (1983). The neglectful style where the parents display no warmth and exert no control or demands over their child; permissive style where warmth is displayed but no demands or behaviour control is displayed; authoritarian where there are only demands without parental support or warmth; and the authoritative type where there is parental warmth and also high expectations and demands on the child.
  2. How much should parents control their child?  Diana Baumrind (1967, 1980, 1989, and 1991) showed that children brought up in a neglectful style tend to do poorly on behavioural, emotional, social and academic measures. Children and adolescents from permissive homes are more likely to be involved in problem behaviour, and perform less well in school, but have higher self-esteem, and better social skills. An authoritarian style produces children and adolescents with no problem behaviour and good academic functioning, but they have poor social skills, and emotional problems. With an authoritative parenting style children do well on all behavioural, emotional, social and academic measures.
  3. The role of psychological control of the child is the third major influence on the concept of parental styles (Barber, 1996). Authoritarian and authoritative parents both exert behavioural control over their children. They differ in the degree of psychological control they exert on the child's mind. Authoritative parents acknowledge that their children and adolescents could have opinions and values that are different from their own, while authoritarian parents do not allow this. Availability of the parent for communication and discussion is probably the crucial difference that enables children and adolescents of authoritative parents to be consistently more competent in behavioural, social, emotional and academic spheres.

The story would be incomplete if I did not mention that each child is born with a temperament of his or her own. Parental style is partly a response to the child's temperament. Not every troubled child or adolescent is the product of poor parenting.

So, should I discipline my child?
Well, you must discipline the behaviour, but remain open for dialogue on their opinions. Indulge their dreams, ensure they work towards that dream in the real world. Control the behaviour not the mind.


  1. Barber, B. K. (1996). Parental psychological control: Revisiting a neglected construct. Child Development, 67(6), 3296-3319.
  2. Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75(1), 43-88.
  3. Baumrind, D. (1980). New directions in socialization research. Psychological Bulletin, 35, 639-652.
  4. Baumrind, D. (1989). Rearing competent children. In W. Damon (Ed.), Child development today and tomorrow (pp. 349-378). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11(1), 56-95.
  6. Maccoby, E. E., & Martin, J. A. (1983). Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.) & E. M. Hetherington (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1-101). New York: Wiley.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

When is teen alcohol drinking problem drinking?

The legal age for obtaining an alcohol permit (yes, that's a prerequisite for alcohol consumption in Maharashtra) is 25 years. However, a recent survey of teenagers in major Indian cities including Pune would have us believe that 45% of Class XII students consume alcohol five to six times a month.
Adolescence is characterised by experimentation
The maturing adolescent brain with its new tool of abstract reasoning seeks to explore the environment and reach its own conclusions regarding the world. Experimenting with socially acceptable intoxicants is just another facet of this behaviour. So, whether legal or otherwise, some of Pune's teens will continue to consume alcohol.

When does alcohol drinking become problem drinking? Is it to do with the frequency? If 5-6 times a month is excessive would 2-3 times be alright? Is it OK to drink alcohol in groups but not OK to drink when alone? When would it be time to seek help?
How would a teenager know the experiment has gone out of control?
The CRAFFT was designed to answer this question. It is a brief screening test for adolescent alcohol and other drug use. CRAFFT is an acronym of key words in six questions. Our staff nurse gets teenagers to answer it in the waiting room. 
(Knight JR; Sherritt L; Shrier LA//Harris SK//Chang G. Validity of the CRAFFT substance abuse screening test among adolescent clinic patients. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent 156(6) 607-614, 2002.)

The CRAFFT questions
  • C - Have you ever ridden in a CAR driven by someone (including yourself) who was "high" or had been using alcohol or drugs?
  • R - Do you ever use alcohol or drugs to RELAX, feel better about yourself, or fit in?
  • A - Do you ever use alcohol/drugs while you are by yourself, ALONE?
  • F - Do your family or FRIENDS ever tell you that you should cut down on your drinking or drug use?
  • F - Do you ever FORGET things you did while using alcohol or drugs?
  • T - Have you gotten into TROUBLE while you were using alcohol or drugs?
2 or more YES answers suggests a 94% chance of significant alcohol related problems