Buzz By The Bay: ‘Autism Can Get Better,' Says Dr Samir Dalwai

Buzz By The Bay: ‘Autism Can Get Better,' Says Dr Samir Dalwai

Dr Samir Dalwai is a developmental pediatrician, who busts myths to promote a greater understanding about this developmental behavioural disorder

Anushka JagtianiUpdated: Saturday, April 20, 2024, 11:41 PM IST
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Early signs of autism 

Inability to speak properly

Disruptive behaviour in class

Lack of eye contact

Minimal response to their name 

According to Dr. Samir Dalwai it’s a misconception that a child with autism does not get better. He believes we need a different perspective to treat autism. His approach targets parents and society to make a difference. He explains that autism is a genetic disorder which expresses itself as poor social interaction skills and a greater affinity towards objects as opposed to humans.

Excerpts from the interview:

What are some of the early signs of autism?

It always starts with people seeing the symptoms and that’s what brings the problem to light. The commonest complaint that I get from parents when they come to me is that the child isn’t speaking, or isn’t speaking well enough when compared to other children of his age. The other common reason they come to us is that the child isn’t sitting in his place in class and is disruptive. Often they say the child doesn’t have good eye contact or can’t sustain eye contact and does not respond when you call out their name. Sometimes they say that my child can speak but only recites nursery rhymes or certain phrases. These all are red flags one should look out for.

We know that autism is a neuro developmental disorder. Can you explain that to us in simple terms?

The term neuro developmental disorder means that there is some problem with the neurological development of this child. It doesn’t mean that it’s a neurological problem like epilepsy, tumors, seizures or a stroke. These are pure neurological problems. In autism, largely there is no problem in the motor area — that is the physical development, walking, standing, sitting. It is a genetic condition present at birth.

Is it that the brain is wired differently in autistic individuals?

The basic unit of the brain is a cell called the neuron. You are born with trillions of neurons but they are not connected to each other. But the brain works on connections. The word wiring is used from that point of view. How am I driving my neuron networks? How am I making them connect? If there is something going wrong with it then the network isn’t happening in the typical way it should. It is happening in an atypical way. So the neurons in an autistic child will code and connect but they will connect along a fault line, so that the child doesn’t have the same abilities as somebody whose neurons are connecting in a neuro typical way.

What is the most common myth about autism according to you?

The commonest myth is that the person can never get back to normal. I am not saying that I can get it back to normal tomorrow but as a scientist and a medical person I am refusing to accept that it can never get better. Specially when in the same breath I am offering you treatments that cost a great deal of money.

Have you ever come across autistic children who are really bright or creative geniuses?

There was this one child who could tell you the day on which you were born if you gave him your date and year of birth, within seconds. It was phenomenal. I am against this though because you are reducing the child to a trick. What you must understand is that whether it is remembering the calendar or reading the notes of musical score, it comes to these children because they are brilliant at patterns. But the moment the pattern changes the child is not comfortable and gets anxious and you see meltdowns.

At your New Horizon Child Development center you are adopting a different approach to deal with autism — one that targets parents and society?

Eventually the first step that goes wrong in the child — the first expression of the gene is that when the child is born, he is not able to engage with humans as much as with objects. The problem with autism is not to do with speech, or reading or writing or behavior. It is to do with the fact that the child is not engaging with humans. If the first step fails then the other steps won’t happen automatically.

What do you advise parents?

We tell parents to keep all objects away, not just screens, which are the most enticing objects. All the blocks and toys we fill the room with should be kept away because you are worsening the object engagement, Second thing, get down with the child at his eye level and start engaging with him in a funny, comical, interactive manner. Make the child laugh and draw him towards you by doing these fun things – don’t teach the child. Then the child starts engaging with humans and comes back on the natural developmental track.

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