It is estimated that around 1 in every 100 people in the UK is autistic.
Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.
If someone is autistic, they are autistic for life and autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be “cured”.
It is important to note that every autistic person is different.
Autism is a “spectrum condition” and affects different people in different ways with some sufferers having learning difficulties, mental health issues or other related conditions.
Children can be diagnosed with autism from a very young age – in some cases as young as two years old.
Spotting the signs of autism
Some of the main signs that a child may be on the autism spectrum include:
- A dislike of change
Autistic children need routine as it gives them the structure and predictability that helps them to make sense of the world around them. So, even little things like a change in where they sit in class or on the school bus can be very challenging for an autistic child.
- Lack of eye contact
Many autistic children have problems in making eye contact with others.
- Social interaction
Autistic children may lack social skills and prefer to be on their own rather than mix with other children. In some instances they may in fact want to interact with others but lack the confidence to do so.
A lack of social skills may also be seen where autistic children perhaps have a lack of understanding of small talk and other conventions of social behaviour.
For children with autism, anxiety can occur more frequently and can be very intense. Seemingly simple daily activities such as leaving the house, interacting with peers, riding in the car, or taking public transport can become increasingly difficult and anxiety provoking.
The characteristics of autism and anxiety can sometimes overlap. Often, children who have autism and anxiety can display their anxieties through a variety of behaviours. These can include becoming over-stimulated, heavily dependent on schedules, self-injuring, outbursts of emotion, or becoming withdrawn. These behaviours are characteristics of both autism and anxiety, and when a child has both, the anxiety symptoms can be intensified.
Getting a diagnosis
Getting a diagnosis can help both parents/carers and school staff to better understand a child’s needs and how to meet them.
There are various ways in which you might get a diagnosis:
- Screening: If your child is pre-school age, your health visitor or GP may carry out a ‘screening interview’ called M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers). This will not give you a diagnosis, but it is a way of indicating whether your child may be autistic.
- Speak to your GP or health visitor: and take along a list or behaviours that you feel may mean that your child is autistic. You may then be referred for a formal assessment/diagnosis
- Assessment: your child may be assessed by a team or professionals including those involved in speech and language therapy, a paediatrician, and a psychologist
If your child is diagnosed with autism there are various agencies and organisations that can support you, including The National Autistic Society: they are the UK’s leading charity for autistic people and their families. They can help you in several ways including:
- their helpline (https://www.autism.org.uk/services/helplines/main.aspx) which will give you confidential advice and support
- their directory of local specialist services (https://www.autism.org.uk/directory.aspx)
Other conditions on the spectrum
There are several other conditions or behaviours that form part of the Autism Spectrum including:
- Pathological Demand Avoidance (“PDA”): those who present with this particular diagnostic profile are driven to avoid everyday demands and expectations to an extreme extent. This demand avoidant behaviour is rooted in an anxiety-based need to be in control.
- Asperger’s Syndrome: according to medical experts, it is a mild form of autism and generally manifests without extreme mental disabilities. The main outward characteristics of a person with Asperger’s syndrome are poor social skills, lacking nonverbal communication, and being clumsy.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD"): a behavioural disorder that includes symptoms such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Most cases are diagnosed when children are 6 to 12 years old. People with ADHD may also have additional problems, such as sleep and anxiety disorders.