ABU DHABI // Children with learning difficulties are being misdiagnosed with autism by doctors, according to parents and medical experts.
Dr Yaseen Aslam, psychiatrist and director at The Lighthouse Arabia, a community mental health clinic in Dubai, said: “I have seen many cases of parents coming to us worried that their children have autism when they have other issues, such as learning difficulties, attention deficit disorder or behavioural or emotional problems.”
Diagnosing autism requires a detailed neuropsychological test involving specifically designed tasks. Ideally, this should be done by a neuropsychologist who can assess if there are any learning disabilities or any traits of autism or cognitive impairment. They will produce a detailed report, including recommendations, Dr Aslam said.
“A lot of children who are presenting to schools with problems related to academic performance, memory, concentration and learning are not being assessed in this detailed manner before they are diagnosed and treated. It’s very important that before we get to the diagnosis and treatment stage, thorough detailed assessment is undertaken,” he said.
Autism is a term used to describe a group of developmental brain disorders – autism spectrum disorders – caused by genes as well as environment.
Children who have autism face communication difficulties, social and behavioural challenges, and display repetitive actions. Children with learning difficulties face challenges in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level expected at their age.
Shereen Al Nowais, chief executive at Taleem Training and Skills Development Centre, which supports pupils with learning difficulties, said: “We have seen many cases of learning difficulties labelled as autism” She said many parents had “misdiagnosed results” from institutions.
A B, 43, an expatriate from Canada, twice sought help with psychologists in this country and was told her son had autism. However, after meeting experts in Canada, they diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.
A B said: “I never agreed with the diagnosis of autism because my son is really sociable.”
When she was in Canada she put her son through intensive behavioural therapy.
“That therapy changed my child. I don’t think you can assess a child in a day. The child is scared when he sees a new face. The person needs to come to the school, and they don’t do that here,” she said.
Many of the symptoms shown by children with autism can overlap with those shown by children who are language impaired. Symptoms include delayed speech development and limited vocabulary.
Daniel Gould, chief clinical officer at New England Centre for Children in Abu Dhabi, said that the overlap of symptoms, particularly with children up to the age of three or four made it difficult to be certain whether it was autism or not.
Dr Kusay Hadi, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Camali Clinic, said observing the child and getting proper history from the parents was vital in identifying autism.
“When autism is severe, it is visible, but if it’s mild you must remain open minded and keep observing. We don’t have to rush into a diagnosis,” he said.
The onset of autism usually occurs around the age of two or three, although it is often diagnosed only later.
Dr Zainab Alloub, consultant paediatrician at Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital, said statistics suggest that one in every 100 children in Dubai has autism. This is in line with global figures.