Speech delays and learning difficulties in children are being wrongly diagnosed as autism, a top health official in the UAE has said.
Dr Anwar Sallam, Seha’s chief medical officer, told the 16th International Paediatrics Health Conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday that children missed important milestones because of limited interaction with their peers and online schooling during the early phase of the pandemic.
Children have been affected physically, mentally, emotionally and socially by the pandemic and delays in development are being wrongly taken as signs of autism.
One in 160 children globally is believed to be autistic, the World Health Organisation said.
Possible symptoms can include repetitive speech or phrases, or oversensitivity to sound.
The condition is characterised by difficulties in communication and the presence of restrictive or repetitive behaviours.
Dr Sallam said immediate intervention is important but parents should not expect the situation to improve overnight.
“Literally everyone and particularly children have been affected by the pandemic,” he told The National.
“Children are spending more time in front of computers. We understand it is for learning but we know that a sedentary lifestyle can lead to childhood obesity and other disorders.
“And the rate of childhood obesity here is actually higher than anywhere else.”
A March 2021 study by the Ministry of Health and Prevention that polled 27,754 parents found that pupils were 46 per cent less physically active than before the pandemic.
The lack of physical activity, coupled with the increased use of electronic devices and ordering food from restaurants, has led to a rise in obesity levels, the study showed.
“That’s just one way the pandemic has affected children,” said Dr Sallam.
“Many children became socially withdrawn because of limited interaction with others. At the peak of the pandemic, they were not socialising at all and not going out.
“They were not even socialising with their own extended family members. All these things reflected on their overall mental health and psychological well-being.
“It resulted in speech delay that was unfortunately interpreted as autism.”
Dr Sallam urged parents to seek help early on if they see any red flags.
“I'm happy that hopefully the pandemic is going to be over soon and we can go back to our normal day-to-day life and see less of these psychological problems in children,” he said.
“But there is no guarantee that if we leave it, it will correct on its own.
“There is always the need for early intervention but early diagnosis is more important. We need to ensure that our children are being seen and assessed by experts.”