Autism is described as “triad of impairments” to do with social interaction, communication and imagination and the characteristics of autism vary from one person to another. However, in order for a diagnosis to be made, a person will usually be assessed as having had persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests since early childhood, to the extent that these “limit and impair everyday functioning“. It’s also worth mentioning that boys are more likely to receive an ASD diagnosis than girls.
If you’ve recently learned that your child has or might have autism spectrum disorder, you’re probably wondering and worrying about what comes next. No parent is ever prepared to hear that a child is anything other than happy and healthy. However, an early diagnosis will equip you and your child to learn about new skills and overcome a wide variety of developmental challenges.
What Are The Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder
- The child doesn’t point to or hold up objects to show people. They struggle to share an experience or show that he/she wants something from you.
- Doesn’t consistently respond to his/her name
- Doesn’t sound like he/she’s having a conversation with you when he/she babbles
- Copies what he/she hears from others or from the TV – for example, when you ask if he/she wants more drink, he/she echoes back ‘more drink’
- doesn’t understand simple one-step instructions – for example, ‘Give the block to me’ or ‘show me the dog’.
- The child doesn’t use gestures on their own – for example, he/she doesn’t wave goodbye without being told to, or without copying someone else.
- Avoids using eye contact to get attention
Relationships and Play
- A child won’t show interest in other children
- Struggle to start games like peekaboo or pat-a-cake
- Won’t engage in pretend play, for example, he/she doesn’t feed teddy i.e pretend games.
- The child has an intense interest in certain objects and gets ‘stuck’ on particular toys or objects – for example, he/she’ll flick the light switch off and on repeatedly
- Interacts with toys and objects in only one way, for example, he/she only turns the wheels of a toy car rather than pretending to drive the car along the floor
- Interested in unusual objects or activities – for example, drains, metal objects or specific TV ads
- Focuses narrowly on objects and activities, like lining up objects.
- The child is easily upset by change and needs to follow routines – for example, he/she needs to sleep, eat or leave the house, in the same way, every time.
- The child repeats body movements or has unusual body movements, like back-arching, hand-flapping, arm-stiffening and walking on his toes.
- The child will be extremely sensitive to sensory experiences – for example, he/she gets easily upset by certain sounds or will eat only foods with a certain texture
- Seeks sensory stimulation – for example, he/she rubs objects on their mouth, or face, or seeks vibrating objects like washing machines, or flutters their fingers to the side of their eyes to watch the light flicker. Specialist sensory toys can be incredibly soothing.
For more information relating to the signs of autism, visit NHS Choices.
What To Do If You Suspect Your Child Has ASD?
The first steps after suspecting your own child or someone close to you had ASD is acquiring a formal diagnosis, but this doesn’t need to be daunting. These are the routine steps towards finding a diagnosis.
Make an appointment with your GP. Take along a list of behaviours and characteristics that make you think your child might be autistic. It could be useful to keep a behaviour diary leading up to any appointments after the referral.
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.
Your child should have a multi-disciplinary diagnostic assessment – that is, an assessment by a team of professionals. The team might include, for example, a paediatrician, a speech and language therapist and a specialist psychologist.
It’s very difficult to come to terms with. Some children are easier and earlier diagnosed whilst others have a long wait through the process. Once you have received a diagnosis you can access autism-specific-support.
- At school- extra classroom help, Education, Health and Care Plan Children and Families Act of September 2014
- Social care- assessment of your child’s needs and needs as a carer
- Financial help- Disability Living Allowance and Carers Allowance
- For the home there’s the local EarlyBird team. A programme aimed to support parents in the period between diagnosis and school placement, empowering and helping them facilitate their child’s social communication and appropriate behaviour in their natural environment. It also helps parents to establish good practice in handling their child at an early age.
Potential Impacts of An Undiagnosed ASD
There are a number of ways an undiagnosed or a delayed condition diagnosis can affect a child and a series of statistics exist that are presented and supported by the The National Autistic Society that relate to the issue of diagnosis.
These impacts can affect a child’s learning capabilities, personal progression and social development, their mental health and wellbeing, as well the impact on immediate family members and carers.
Disruptions in Education
The importance of an early diagnosis could mean getting your child into the right school be it mainstream with additional support or specialist schools with teachers who are trained in teaching pupils with ASD.
The right school have the resources and support network of multidisciplinary team which will enable your child to thrive and reach their true potential and enjoy their school experiences and make progress.
It is thought that insufficient support infrastructure in the mainstream school environment and the lack of understanding may be why, according to the NAS, 17% of autistic children have been suspended from school and another 4% had been expelled from one or more schools.
Development or Exacerbation of Mental Health Issues
An undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder can severely impact a child’s mental health state. If they’re not receiving additional support then it can be difficult and disorienting time without the proper mental health care. According to NAS ‘at least one in three autistic adults are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support’ and these can be conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Some of these conditions can be treated with the right support and with items such as therapy weighted blankets. However, adults referrals are rising, most report post-traumatic stress disorder from all the difficulties they’ve had to face throughout their school life typically from bullying and inhumanity.
Pressure on The Immediate and Wider Family
The absence of a proper diagnosis in a family can prolonged stress and anxiety. If you’ve recently learned that your child has or might have autism spectrum disorder, you’re probably wondering and worrying about what comes next. No parent is ever prepared to hear that a child is anything other than happy and healthy, and an ASD diagnosis can be particularly worrying.
But having a diagnosis removes some of the guilt, confusion and anxiety that often goes with being the parent of a child with undiagnosed autism. Having a diagnosis means you and your child are able to access the right help and support and as parents, you start to celebrate your successes as you see changes, however subtle they may seem.
Coping Strategies As a Parent Awaiting Diagnosis
- Learn about autism. Educate yourself about the treatment options, ask questions, and participate in all treatment decisions.
- Become an expert on your child. If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems and preventing or modifying situations that cause difficulties and access help
- Understand how your child learns best. It is through seeing, listening, or doing?
- Get to know your child’s likes and interests. Think, how can those activities be used in treatment and to bolster learning?
- Fundamental, accept your child and everything that comes with it. Celebrate small success!