BEIRUT: Around Christmastime four years ago, Tania Sacca realized something was wrong with her child. Little Robert, at that time two-and-a-half years old, was bitten by another child in the day-care center and didn't react to the offense.
"In the day-care center, they told me my son didn't play with other children and advised me to go and see a psychologist," recalled the 32-year-old mother. But the psychologist couldn't make out what was wrong with the toddler and told her to come back in a year's time.
"At first, I was relieved," she said. "Nevertheless, deep inside, I felt there was a problem."
She had noticed that as a six-month-old baby, Robert avoided eye contact and didn't react to simple games or touch. At nine months, he wasn't afraid of strangers - an age where fear of unknown people is usually a part of normal development. However, Robert started to speak and to search for words at a much earlier age than usual.
"At first, we thought he was hyper-intelligent," recalled Sacca, saying that, for example, Robert would recognize words in the dictionary and show the corresponding pictures.
But hyper-intelligence wasn't the case. Having come back from the first visit to the psychologist, Sacca started to do intensive internet research and learned about autism.
"When I read about the symptoms, I realized: that's Robert. This is how he is."
At first, this was a shock to Tania, and to her husband. But then, the parents started to accept that their first-born son suffered from a very complex and little-understood dysfunction.
Autism is not a disease, but a developmental disorder of brain function. People with classical autism show mainly three types of symptoms: impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and unusual or limited activities and interests. In addition, people with autism often have abnormal responses to sounds, touch or other sensory stimulation. There is no cure for autism, yet appropriate early intervention may improve social development and reduce undesirable behavior.
Realizing a need for a support mechanism, Lebanese parents of autistic children have been working together since 1999. They have, for example, organized a marathon with their children to raise awareness about autism. Sacca came to know about the marathon and consulted a specialist after the event. The encounter was eye-opening, since she realized she wasn't alone with this problem and that help was in sight.
Around 200 families are currently members of the Lebanese Autism Society (LAS). Most of them live in Lebanon, others abroad. They know of around 400 cases of autism in the country, but they assume there are more people suffering from the dysfunction. US statistics reveal 10 to 20 autistic people in every 10,000.
Robert is now six years old and attends the Lycee Abdel-Kader primary school. It is a normal school and Robert is a normal student; the only difference is that he has a "shadow-teacher." Shadow-teachers take care of only two students at once and help them to follow the class. Robert also sees various specialists.
The specialists working at the Lycee Abdel-Kader - where a number of autistic children are integrated - consist of a psychologist, a specialized educator, a psycho-motorist and a communication specialist.
Communication and social behavior are the most important problems the specialists deal with.
"You must understand that an autistic toddler doesn't imitate others due to the communication and socializing problems," explained Sacca.
This means that things an ordinary child learns by imitating are totally absent in autistic children. The specialists at the school try to fill this gap.
Also, autistic children don't feel they are individuals with needs - they think of themselves as a part of a whole universe. The communication specialist helps the children to get to know their body and individual needs and finally helps them to express themselves with gestures, pictures, photographs or role games.
"Robert has difficulties expressing himself," said Sacca. Although he can speak, he tends to repeat words like a parrot. "Sometimes words get mixed up in his head." The use of simple pictures makes his life easier.
Another common problem is that Robert doesn't like a change in routine.
"Whenever there is a slight change - when we take a different route to school, or when I take him with me to go shopping, for example - he gets upset," said his mother.
Scientists think routine changes bring new impressions that become overwhelming.
However, since Robert has entered school and started to go to regular sessions with specialists, he has been more receptive to change.
"The important thing is that I have to explain everything to him, even the slightest details," said Sacca. "Then he can manage."
As some problems are solved, new ones pop up. His mother mentioned that at the moment, he doesn't like his body to change. This could become even more problematic once Robert enters puberty. But Sacca doesn't like to think of the future: "When one day is over, I think of the next."
For her, it is a demanding job to take care of her child - it's so demanding that the former mechanical engineer decided to give up her job. Instead, she volunteers for the Lebanese Autism Society. The association regularly exchanges experiences with other Lebanese institutions that take care of mentally retarded persons, where autistic people are usually placed.
And sometimes, unexpected help is there, too. It was just about the time when Sacca learned about her son's dysfunction that she found out she was pregnant with a second child. This proved to be helpful: "Robert is at a mental age of two-and-a-half years, just the age of his younger brother. The little brother teaches the bigger one important things - for example, to imitate."
Also, Sacca is happy that Robert has the chance to go to a normal school which integrates children with disabilities: "Small children don't see the difference."
She feels it is difficult, though, to explain the school's integrationist approach to parents, and to alleviate their fears.
"For autistic children, it is great to be with ordinary children," she stated. "But it is also great the other way around - ordinary children learn to deal with people who are different from themselves."
For more information, contact the Lebanese Autism Society LAS, phones: 01-364433, 03-232427, 03-651905, 03-315954 or contact via email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Website: www.autismlebanon.org