Since 2013, the name has been used as an umbrella term for all autism disorders that were previously recognised as distinct subtypes e.g. Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental condition which affects individuals in the areas of social communication and interaction, and is often characterised by restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities. These symptoms usually develop in early childhood and can cause significant impairment in important areas of functioning.
Although individuals with ASD have difficulties in the two core areas, each person may have a unique combination of symptoms and abilities. The word ‘spectrum’ reflects the idea that individuals can have a range of difficulties which varies widely in the way it affects them.
ASD is thought to affect around one in 100 Australians. It is more commonly found in males, with males being 4 times more likely than females to be affected.
What are the warning signs?
Although children with ASD can be very different from each other, there are some ‘red flags’ to look out for during the first two years of life. Some behaviour signs may change or become more apparent over time, however, any difficulty with social or language skills during this period is cause for concern.
The number of signs may vary according to the child’s age and how severely the child is affected, and may include the following:
Social communication signs
- fails to consistently respond to his/her name
- lack of interest in other people
- delayed babbling/talking
- doesn’t use eye contact to get someone’s attention
- doesn’t engage in pretend play
- doesn’t engage in imitative behaviours such as waving bye or clapping
- doesn’t point to objects, hold them up to show others, or bring those objects to you
- doesn’t return your smile, imitate facial expressions
- doesn’t reach out when being picked up
- has an intense interest in certain objects e.g., Lego, trains, or obsession with a particular TV program
- interacts with toys and objects in one particular way or in an odd way, rather than more broadly or in the way they were intended to be played – for example, carrying around toys but never playing with them, or lining up objects
- is easily upset by change and must follow routines – for example, sleeping, feeding or leaving the house must be done in the same way every time
- has unusual body movements, such as back-arching, hand-flapping and walking on his/her toes
- is extremely sensitive to sensory experiences – for example, is easily upset by certain sounds, will eat only foods with a certain texture, can’t tolerate strong smells
Many young children may behave in the ways listed above, however this does not necessarily mean that it is a sign of autism spectrum disorder. Some children simply develop more slowly than others. However, it is extremely important to recognise developmental delays and get your child properly assessed by a paediatrician, and/or child psychologist. If your child does have ASD, the earlier they can access early intervention services, the more effective these services can be.
What causes it?
The cause for ASD is still not fully understood. Research to date suggests it may involve a combination of genetic risk and environmental factors that influence early brain development. Some of the environmental factors which may play a role include advanced parental age at time of conception, extreme prematurity, maternal illness during pregnancy, and very low birth weight.
There is currently no known cure for autism, however early diagnosis and targeted intervention or therapies can assist in reducing the impact that it has on your child’s functioning. While ASD is characterised by difficulties with social interactions, other areas of development are often not affected. In fact, some children may have distinct strengths, such as having strong long term memory skills, an excellent sense of direction, or excel in areas of maths, music, and art, among others.
How do I deal with my child’s diagnosis?
Receiving news that your child has autism can be very difficult. You may experience a variety of emotional reactions including… relief, shock, grief, anger, sadness, denial. Stress, confusion and anxiety are also common. Part of moving forward is dealing with your own needs and emotions – remember that you need to first take care of yourself, in order to take the best possible care for your child.
Raising a child with autism places extraordinary demands on the parents as well as the family as a whole. Although research indicates that the majority of children who have a sibling with autism cope well with their experiences, it does not mean that they do not encounter special challenges in learning how to deal with a brother or sister with autism. For example, they may be discouraged from playing with their sibling who doesn’t seem interested in playing with them, embarrassed by unwanted attention at family outings, or angry if they feel that there are different expectations for them compared to their sibling. As such, family members may also need support of their own.
Below are some suggestions for you and your family
- Be informed, and take advantage of services available to you in your community
- Don’t ignore your feelings – you may have conflicting emotions and those emotions are to be expected – it is okay. If you find yourself having a difficult time, seek out your own support, whether it be a close friend, family member, or health professional.
- Spend time with your other children – although time spent with the whole family is great and strengthens your bond, having a sibling with autism can often be attention-grabbing. They all need to feel important and have alone time with Mum and Dad
- It is not helpful to be upset or angry for extended periods of time – when you find yourself arguing with another family member over an autism-related issue, try to remember that this is painful for the both of you. Rather than directing your anger towards your loved ones, try directing it towards the disorder instead.
If you would like some support or are concerned about your child, please feel free to make an appointment with one of our qualified child psychologists.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (5th ed.) Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Autism Spectrum Australia (2015). Indicators of autism in young children. Retrieved via http://www.autismspectrum.org.au/sites/default/files/Early-years-checklist-2014.pdf
Autism Speaks (2015). What is autism? What is autism spectrum disorder? Retrieved via https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
Autism Speaks (2015). 100 day kit. Retrieved via https://autismspeaks.org/family-services/tool-kits/100-day-kit
Raising Children (2015). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Overview. Retrieved via http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/autism_spectrum_disorder_early_signs.html/context/917
Authors: Katherine Vuong and Ashley Cooper