Preeti (name changed on request) knew there was something wrong with her daughter when she was two years old. The toddler didn’t talk and had problems understanding what was said to her. She could recite advertisement jingles, but when it came to asking for a glass of water, the little girl could only point. After a round of doctors, including paediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist and a neurologist (who turned out to be an urologist), there were no answers.
It was the child’s Montessori principal who noticed something was wrong, and Preeti herself who diagnosed her daughter with autism after educating herself on the Internet. It took a trip to Delhi and another round of doctors to finally confirm that her daughter had Progressive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS), a form of autism. Now, after two years of consistent effort on her mother’s part, she has improved and has been accepted into a mainstream school.
“The problem was, she didn’t have all the signs of autism,” Preeti explains. “For instance, she is very affectionate and there was never any hand-flapping or rocking. She is learning to speak now, and after constantly repeating things to her, she is beginning to understand. I am angry about wasting nearly a year because doctors in Calcutta kept telling me she was normal.”
Paediatrician Monideepa Banerjee says there is a checklist for doctors, parents and teachers to follow, from the age of 18 months, because “it’s never too early”. CHAT (Checking for Autism in Toddlers) consists of a long list of symptoms, like hand-flapping, lack of affection, delayed speech, the child not responding to his/her name, lack of eye contact and body language. “The toddler needs to be observed for a few months for a minimum of signs, and once properly diagnosed, the right intervention programme can be started,” Banerjee says.
Rita’s (name changed on request) daughter is three-and-a-half years old. She was diagnosed with autism about a year ago. Again, it was her Montessori teacher who pointed out that something was wrong with the little girl, although Rita had noticed the obvious signs of hand-flapping, rocking and delayed speech. The doctor gave her a few steps to take and asked her to come back in a year. The child has now been diagnosed non-autistic, but Rita is not convinced.
“I can still see the signs,” she says. “She has only just started talking and is behind her age group in certain activities. She has improved a lot, in that there is no hand-flapping or rocking any more, but she is not yet normal.”
Intervention and integration are the key, says Neena Singh, principal of Divyayan Montessori, on Hazra Road. The school has a special education teacher to deal with physically and mentally handicapped children, from Down’s Syndrome to autism. Aarti Kasera, special education teacher, works with the kids “slowly but surely”, with the aim of bringing them back into the classroom with the others.
Banerjee observes that while most doctors are not well-informed yet, teachers are becoming more aware, as are parents. “But the first stop is always the paediatrician. If they can’t give a proper diagnosis, then where can the parents go'” she concludes.