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What is Autism and How Can You Help an Autistic Child?

Autism affects around 700,000 people in the UK – over 1 in 100 adults and children. More boys than girls are diagnosed as autistic, although the reason for this isn’t clear.

Some researchers attribute it to the different genetic make-up of each gender, while others believe autism is easier to detect in boys due to their more obvious, symptomatic, disruptive behaviour; so it simply isn’t diagnosed as often in girls.


What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how a person relates to and communicates with other people. It also impacts how they see, feel and hear the world around them. A developmental disability, autism is not an illness that can be cured. Autistic people are autistic for life and for many, it’s an integral aspect of their identity.

Autism is recognised as a spectrum disorder: this means that there are variations in how it affects people and every person who is on the autism spectrum has different symptoms, abilities and challenges.

In most cases, no one cause can be identified in the development of autism, although research suggests it is rooted in the very early stages of brain development. Several genes that can cause autism have also been identified, accounting for around 15% of autism spectrum disorders.

What are the most common types of autism?

Autism is not one single disorder but rather a spectrum of closely-related disorders that have shared core symptoms. Most medical specialists recognise three common pervasive developmental disorders (PDD):


All autistic people are affected in different ways. Some may also have mental health issues, learning disabilities or other conditions. This means that people who have autism require different levels of support; although everyone on the autism spectrum can learn and develop with the correct kind of support – and continue to live a more fulfilling life.

Asperger’s Syndrome

People with Asperger’s don’t usually have the learning disabilities that are associated with autism. They are of average or above average intelligence, but they may have very specific learning difficulties – they may find it difficult to understand and process language.


Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified has some features of autism. Also referred to as “atypical personality development”, it encompasses cases where there is a marked impairment of communication and social interaction or stereotypical behaviour patterns; but the full features of autism are not met.

How is someone’s life affected if they are autistic?

Some autistic people can live relatively independent lives but depending on the extent of the condition, others may have learning disabilities or need a lifetime of specialist support. Children may find it difficult to participate in interactive play and they might also find social development difficult.

What difficulties do people with autism commonly face?

Autistic people can face a number of challenges but the most common are known as the “triad of impairments”, falling into three categories:

  • Difficulties with social interaction
  • Problems with communication – both verbal and non-verbal
  • A lack of imaginative play

These can be further broken down into different challenges, depending on the individual. However, there are massive differences in the severity of the symptoms, their combination and the patterns of behaviour. Some of the challenges include:

  • Finding chatting and small talk difficult
  • Being unaware of what’s socially appropriate
  • Difficulties in developing friendships and relating to others
  • Problems in understanding other people’s reactions
  • Unable to interpret facial expressions and tone of voice
  • Obsessiveness with objects, routines and interests
  • Unable to empathise with other people
  • Stereotyped or repetitive behaviour
  • May unintentionally appear rude or insensitive
  • Complicated, stressful family relationships


How can having an autistic child affect the parent/carers’ life?

Having an autistic child can affect a family in various ways, as parents and carers need to place their primary focus on helping the child. This can put a strain on their marriage, their other children, personal relationships and work and finances; as the parents’ resources, in terms of time and money, are shifted towards providing treatment for their autistic child.

How is autism diagnosed?

When seeking diagnosis for a child under 18, first speak to your GP or health visitor. Provide them with a list of behavioural concerns that lead you to believe your child may be autistic.

If your child is pre-school age, your GP may conduct a “screening interview” called Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT). This can indicate whether your child may be autistic. Your GP or health visitor can then refer your child for a formal multi-disciplinary assessment by a team of professionals – including a psychiatrist, a specialist psychologist and a speech and language therapist.

As an adult, if you believe you may have autism, go and see your GP. Explain why you think this is the case and how a diagnosis will benefit you. Tell your GP about some of the difficulties you may have faced in childhood and adulthood with social interaction, communication, friendships and employment, for example. Your GP can refer you to a multi-disciplinary team, a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist who is experienced in diagnosing autism.

What are the common symptoms of autism in children?

The signs that a child may be autistic include:

  • Not drawing their parents’ attention to objects – for example, pointing at a toy
  • Carrying out activities repetitively, such as lining up toys in a certain order
  • Resistance to doing things differently
  • Difficulties with social interaction, communication and social imagination
  • Behaviour such as biting, kicking or pinching


At what age is autism typically noticeable?

At around one, a child may not have reached the expected milestones of development – such as crawling, standing with their parents’ support, saying single words or making simple gestures.

They may also:

  • Avoid eye contact
  • Seem indifferent to people, preferring to be alone
  • Begin to show signs of repetitive behaviour, such as rocking or fixating on objects.

At two, unusual behaviour may become more noticeable when compared with their peers, with the child starting to:

  • Lose language skills
  • Reject people
  • Stop progressing

Between two and five years, the child may:

  • Focus on routine and obsessively arranging objects, such as toys
  • Become distressed when their routine is disturbed
  • Develop further repetitive movements, such as spinning around
  • Show sensitivity to loud sounds that other children don’t notice
  • Dislike hugs and accept them only passively

What can you do to help your autistic child as a parent or carer?

Parents or carers can help by informing other family members, especially children, about autism and the challenges it creates. Understand the complications that siblings will face and help them to cope. Involve members of the extended family, explaining the situation to them so that you have a network of understanding people who can offer help.

Support groups and specialist schools are also available. Talk to other families who have an autistic child for advice and morale support. Don’t become disheartened if things that you try don’t always work out, as it’s a learning curve.

With the correct help and support, a person who has autism can lead a full life. With the appropriate treatment plan, love and support, an autistic child can learn, grow and thrive.

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