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What is it?
Your child may currently be undergoing assessment for autism or may have recently been diagnosed with autism, and you perhaps hear a few variations of the name, such as ‘autistic’ and ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)’. All of these terms are used to describe a group of conditions which affect the way the brain develops and processes information. This means that young people with autism will perceive people and the world around them differently to most other people. Autism is a lifelong developmental condition and it is estimated that 1 in 100 young people in the UK have autism.
As the term ‘autistic spectrum disorder’ suggests, autism is a condition which sits within a ‘spectrum’, meaning that while most people affected will have similar characteristics, it will affect and impact on each individual very differently.
Some young people with ASD may also have profound learning disabilities or additional educational needs, but many young people with autism are of average or above average ability and are able to attend mainstream school successfully. Though autism affects each young person differently, it will have an influence on the way that they think, feel, learn and relate to their environment and the people in it.
Signs and symptoms
ASD is a combination of development difficulties; there isn’t any specific behaviour that means a young person has ASD. Sometimes it can be a difficult condition to identify, as young people may have additional conditions alongside ASD, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety or depression. However, if a young person has autism, they usually have difficulties in three main areas of development.
- How they interact socially with other people
- How they communicate with others and process verbal information
- How they interpret or predict other people’s actions, intentions and thoughts
Additional difficulties may also include extreme reactions to sensory things like sounds, sights, smells and textures.
This means that they might:
- Have difficulty understanding jokes or sarcasm
- Find it hard to read peoples body language and facial expressions
- Have difficulty understanding other people’s emotions and expressing their own emotions
- Find it hard to cope with queues, crowds and manage noise
- Feel very anxious in some situations
- Become distressed with changes to their daily routine or structure
- Display repetitive behaviours such as twisting or flapping their hands
- Develop intense interests in things
Some people might notice that they have some of these signs but that doesn’t mean that they definitely have autism; a specialist assessment and diagnosis would be needed to determine whether or not someone has autism – this can be arranged after speaking to a GP.
At present there is no known cause of autism, with work still being carried out to try and determine a cause. As autism sometimes runs in families, it is said that genes could play a part, as well as environmental factors. In some cases, it could be that there is no known cause.
What can I do?
If you are concerned that your child might be affected by autism, talking to a GP or someone at your child’s school – such as a class teacher, the head teacher, a mentor or SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) – about your worries is a good place to start. Educational staff can ensure that the correct support is in place in school and a GP can initiate a referral to specialist assessment services, if required.
Parents and carers play an essential part in the care of young people with autism; therefore it is important that you find out as much as you can about the condition in order to identify the most appropriate ways to support your child. There are many support strategies available; the type of support required will be dependent on your child’s unique needs and may fall into the following areas:
- Helping to develop their communication skills and adjusting how you communicate with them
- Thinking about their sensory needs and adapting the environment accordingly
- Developing their social skills and helping them to make friends
- Working with school staff to support their educational needs
- Positively supporting their behaviour
The below resources are for patients on the waiting list for an autism assessment, produced by a mental health trust, to help with issues such as anxiety and sleep.
Positive Behaviour Support:
Parenting a young person with autism may be challenging and stressful at times. It is therefore important that you take time to look after your own emotional wellbeing. Parent support groups can be a great source of help and advice for parents; some websites you may find useful are:
Have a look on your local authority web page for their Local Offer; this is where you will find what is on offer in your local area for children and young people with ASD and their families.