What is Autism?
Updated: Jun 2
This article describes the terminology and signs of autism and what this means for you as a parent if you are concerned about your young child.
Autism has many different labels. In my work I have heard the terms ASC – Autism Spectrum Condition, and ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder, however some adults are changing this abbreviation to Autism Spectrum Diagnosis. I prefer to say I am working with a child who 'has autism.'
It can sometimes be a long and difficult road for parents who want their child investigated for a possible autism diagnosis.
First of all, it's important to understand that the team of professionals who diagnose autism must centre their observations around 2 specific criteria:
1. Persistent social communication and interaction deficit in multiple contexts
2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and interactions
…which can not be explained by any other developmental disorder.
I often explain to parents that no single type of communication, interaction or behaviour can be used to diagnose autism, no matter how troubling this behaviour may be at home.
I recently had this conversation with a mother who was concerned about her daughter's behaviour at home. This little girl liked a set routine before bed-time and got upset if the routine was changed. However, when I observed her in class - she was a very sociable girl. I saw her walking up to her friends and showing them her work, then she asked them if they liked her picture! In assessment with me she engaged in beautiful back and forth conversation, telling me all about her naughty teddy bear who flew out of the window at night and caused all kinds of mischief in her local area! This demonstrated fantastic creativity and interest in communicating with me, so I was able to reassure parents and offer some strategies to support her behaviour at home.
Many parents also find it difficult to describe to their doctor just what it is exactly that is making them concerned. It's important to understand that your GP must ensure that a child has a number of difficulties, not just with behaviour, but with communication and interaction, in order to recommend your child is referred on to be investigated for autism.
Parents can often recall and give examples of restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests their child has, but they can struggle to pin-point which aspects of communication or interaction their child specifically has difficulty with.
In my role as a speech and language therapist I provide parents with a clear breakdown and description of their child's communication and interaction needs following an observation of their child in different play tasks. Parents are then able to give their GP the important information needed to make a judgement about onward referral.
Most people think that they must wait until their child is 4 years old to get an autism diagnosis, but a child can be diagnosed with autism from the age of 2.
Here are some signs from CDC that indicate you should seek further advice:
An child with autism might:
by 12 months, not respond to their name
by 14 months, not point at objects to indicate interest
by 18 months, not play games involving imaginary play (eg pretending to ‘feed’ a doll) avoid eye contact
have difficulty understanding other people’s feelings
have difficulty talking about their own feelings
experience delayed speech/language skills
repeat phrases or words
provide unrelated answers to questions
find minor changes upsetting
have obsessive interests
rock their body, spin in circles or flap their hands
express unusual reactions to the way things taste, look, feel, sound or smell
Early diagnosis helps to improve outcomes and support healthy development and quality of life, for both the child and their family. Therefore, it's important to share your concerns rather than wait.
Lisa Taylor-Jones is a speech and language therapist and accredited assessor of autism (ADOS). She works in Plymouth primary schools to support their most vulnerable children and also works privately offering therapy to children in Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall.