Autism/Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

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Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability which begins in early childhood and lasts throughout life. It affects three important areas of functioning:

  • Communication – how you express yourself and make yourself understood by others
  • Social interaction – how you connect and develop relationships with other people
  • Theory of mind – the ability to feel empathy and understand that others experience the world differently

Most people with autism also experience sensory difficulties which means they may be over or under sensitive to sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, balance and body awareness.

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because there is a wide variation in both the type and the severity of symptoms people experience. It is a worldwide condition and there is evidence that it presents differently in males and females.

What causes autism?

The exact causes of autism are not yet fully understood but research indicates that it is influenced by genetics so it tends to run in families.  This means, for example, that If one child in a family has autism then a sibling has a 3-5% chance of also having the condition or a related problem, such as a language disorder. This is a much higher rate than in the population as a whole.

There have been many other theories about possible causes of autism, none of which have been proven scientifically.  Previously, the condition has been linked with MMR vaccination but several large, in-depth research studies have shown this not to be the case.

The numbers of children being diagnosed with autism has increased over the last decades, but it is thought this is due to better awareness and recognition, rather than an actual increase in those having the condition.

What are the signs and symptoms of autism?

The onset of autism is often noticeable by the age of three years although this is not always the case, especially if the difficulties are mild or if the child is very able.  Autism in girls may also be difficult to spot as they can be good at ‘masking’ their problems. Common signs include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Delay in speech and language skills
  • Not using gestures such as pointing and waving bye-bye
  • Preferring to play alone
  • Play which lacks creativity and imagination
  • Preference for rules and routines
  • Being upset by changes (inflexible)
  • Having behaviour rituals
  • Having difficulty understanding the emotions of other people
  • Social awkwardness or inappropriate behaviour
  • Unusual or inappropriate body movements such as hand flapping (motor mannerisms)
  • Intense reactions to sensory stimuli

What are the strengths and weaknesses of having autism?

The world can be a deeply confusing place for children with autism as they struggle to make sense of what comes easily to others.  The nature of the core impairments (communication, social interaction, theory of mind, and sensory difficulties) can cause high levels of stress when combined with the experience of daily living.

However, many children with autism are able, with support, to excel in specific areas of interest, partly because of their attention to tiny detail and their ability to focus exclusively on one thing for a long time.  Many also show an aptitude for numbers or may be drawn to the use of technology, skills which are very useful and can lead to opportunities in adulthood.

How is autism usually diagnosed?

If autism is suspected, it is important to seek help as soon as possible because early intervention has been shown to reduce the severity of symptoms.  Having a diagnosis enables parents, caregivers and others to understand the child more and give the right support.  It is also a means of ensuring the right educational help is given.

Autism in children is generally diagnosed by professionals such as paediatricians or psychiatrists working alongside other professionals, including speech and language therapists or occupational therapists (a multi-disciplinary approach).  The process involves taking a detailed history about early development and current behaviour, collecting information from the child’s nursery or school and doing a direct play assessment involving specific tasks to observe responses.

For further information about getting a diagnosis through Provide Children’s Services refer to: Autism Pathway (guide for parents/caregivers).

How is autism treated?

There is no known ‘cure’ for those on the autistic spectrum.  However, some useful approaches and programmes have been developed and can be used to help specific difficulties.

Some of these programmes, such as PECS (Pictorial Exchange Communication System) and TEACCH focus on either communication or clarity and predictability.  Others are based on traditional behavioural techniques including ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis).

The key to success with autism is to understand the condition and what things make life so difficult for those who have it (https://eycp.essex.gov.uk/).  Each child needs to be given support for their own strengths and difficulties and to be recognised as being individually unique.

There is no ‘best’ intervention for children with autism as different things work for different people.  Parents/caregivers are advised to seek professional help and guidance and to be cautious of any treatment which claims to be a ‘cure’.  Support should also be sought when things get tough as autism can have a profound effect upon families, especially if the child is severely affected.

What happens next?

Suspecting autism or receiving a diagnosis can be a hard thing for many families, especially when it exists alongside other problems including hyperactivity, sleep issues or learning difficulties.  Worry about the future is natural but, with the right understanding and use of coping strategies, many children with autism grow up to lead relatively or completely independent lives.

It is also worth noting that a range of famous people throughout history are thought to have been on the autistic spectrum and have made major contributions to both science and the arts.

There may be times when autism is very challenging (such as in puberty or other times of transition) and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are not uncommon.  Again, early recognition is vital as these conditions are not part of autism and may be treated successfully with the right help.

Resources and finding help

For further information about autism and organisations who can help, refer to the purple ‘Learning about Autism’ and other tabs.

For a story book to share with your child about their condition please click here.

Explore our autism post-diagnostic page for valuable insights, resources, and support tailored to empower individuals and families on their journey after an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis

Learning about autism - Books

Books for parents: 

The Autistic Spectrum: A Guide for Parents and Professionals

Author: Lorna Wing

How to Live with Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Practical Strategies for Parents and Professionals

Authors: Barry Wright and Chris Williams

Books to read with children

The Social Skills Picture Book: Teaching Communication, Play and Emotion

Author:  Jed Baker

The Survival Guide for Kids with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (And Their Parents)

Authors: Elizabeth Reeve and Elizabeth Verdick

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr Temple Grandin

Author: Julia Finley Mosca

Different Like Me – My Book of Autism Heroes

Author: Jennifer Elder

Learning about autism - Talking to children about diagnosis

Talking to children about diagnosis

The Autism Language Launcher: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Your Child Turn Sounds and Words into Simple Conversations

Author: Kate C Wilde

Autism: Talking Together About an Autism Diagnosis

Author: Rachel Pike

My Family is Different

Author: Carolyn Brock

Illustrations: Steve Locket and Jess Abbo

Learning about autism - Course
Useful Organisations

Organisations

The National Autistic Society

Leading charity for autistic people and their families.  Source of information covering a wide

Autism Anglia

Regional charity providing advice, care and support for children, adults and families affected by autism.

Telephone: 01206 577678

Special Needs and Parents (SNAP)

Charity for Essex families with children and young adults (up to 25 years old) who have special needs or disabilities.

Telephone: 01277 211300

Families in Focus

Chelmsford based parent-led organisation offering holistic care for families of children with disabilities and special needs.  Services include assistance with Disability Allowance applications and independent support on educational issues.

Telephone: 01245 353575

NHS Choices (Autistic Spectrum Disorder)

UK health website giving information and sign-posting for autism

 

Useful Groups

Groups

The MAZE Group

For families of children and young people with additional needs who live in North Essex.  Services include free monthly drop-in sessions, specialist weekly programme, workshops and parenting groups.

Telephone: 07708 873023

SAFE

Support group for individuals and families affected by Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism (Autistic Spectrum Disorder).

Play and Recreation

POP Essex

Stay & play and respite sessions in Braintree, Essex for 0-19 year olds with SEND, their carers and loved ones.

Telephone: 01376 528999

SEND Sensation

 SEND Sensation has come together to provide venue-based clubs and community-based activities with specialist staff and facilities to support children and young people with learning disabilities and autism, physical and sensory impairments, and special educational needs and disabilities.

Mental Wellbeing Support

Mental Wellbeing

SET CAMHS

Available through the NHS for children/young people  up to 18 years old (up to 25 years for special educational needs).  Referral made via GP, paediatrician or direct request.

Telephone:  0300 953 0222 (9am – 5pm, Monday – Friday)

Urgent help or out of hours: 0800 995 1000

Young Minds

National charity dedicated to improving emotional wellbeing and mental health for children and young people including those who may have autism.

Helpline: 0808 802 5544

Mid and North Essex Mind

Local mental health charity for those finding life difficult.

MindEd

Free online educational resource to improve understanding of mental health problems in children and young people.

General Information

General

Essex County Council

Latest information about services (education, rehabilitation and social care support) for families and people with autism.

Essex Safeguarding Children Board

For reporting concerns about a child:

Immediate danger: ring 999

Abuse/neglect: 0345 603 7627 (weekdays) or 0345 606 1212 (out of hours)

 

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