"I Think My Child is on the Autistic Spectrum
What is Autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech, language and communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not just one type of autism but many, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
The term “spectrum” reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism. Autism is a spectrum condition.
Children with autistic traits share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some autistic children have learning difficulties, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning they will need different levels of support. All children on the autism spectrum learn and develop. With the right level of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.
How autism is diagnosed?
The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another, but in order for a diagnosis to be made, a child will usually be assessed as having had persistent difficulties with social communication, social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests since early childhood, to the extent that these are limiting and impairing your child’s everyday functioning. Let’s investigate these areas a little bit more below:
1. Persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction
Children on the autistic spectrum often have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They may find it difficult to use or understand:
tone of voice
jokes and sarcasm.
Some children may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They will often understand more of what other people say to them than they are able to express, yet may struggle with vagueness or abstract concepts. Some autistic children benefit from using, or prefer to use, alternative means of communication, such as sign language or visual symbols. Some are able to communicate very effectively without speech. Whilst other children have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests. It often helps to speak in a clear, consistent way and to give autistic children time to process what has been said to them.
Autistic children often have difficulty 'reading' other people - recognising or understanding others feelings and intentions - and expressing their own emotions. This can make it very hard for children to navigate the social world. They may appear to be insensitive, seek out time alone when overloaded by other people, not seek comfort from other people or appear to behave 'strangely' and in a way thought to be socially inappropriate. Autistic children may also find it hard to form friendships. Some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about it.
2. Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests
Repetitive behaviour and routines
The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic children, who often prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or home, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.
The use of rules can also be important. It may be difficult for an autistic person to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the 'right' way to do it. Children on the autism spectrum may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but may be able to cope better if they can prepare for in advance.
Many autistic children have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be life-long, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. An interest may sometimes be unusual. One autistic person loved collecting rubbish, for example. With encouragement, the person developed an interest in recycling and the environment. Many channel their interest into studying, volunteering, or other meaningful activities. Sometimes autistic children often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their well-being and happiness.
Children on the autistic spectrum may experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. For example, they may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Or they may be fascinated by lights or spinning objects. Sound defenders (headphones) to block out loud sounds can often help when at home, school or out and about.
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