Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Deep Dive Into Supporting Children

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a social, emotional, and communication disorder. Autism expert and advocate, Kelly Park, discusses further!

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Autism Spectrum Disorder is a social, emotional, and communication disorder that spans a spectrum of severity, ranging from low-functioning, or more severe, to high functioning, or less severe and often known as Asperger Syndrome. 

The main challenges facing individuals who have autism are the inability to ‘play’ appropriately or initiate play with another (or social difficulty), the inability to regulate emotions (which can be exhibited as a meltdown), and communication. Individuals with autism might be nonverbal, meaning they may be unable to speak or be understood, or they may experience difficulty expressing themselves within a social conversation despite having the vocabulary. Autism can also be exhibited through limited and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Causes and Risk Factors

There are no known causes of or risk factors for autism. However, there is an assumption that autism could be caused by an abnormality within the brain’s structure. Researchers are continuing to investigate the causes and the links within genetics and environmental influences. There is no known link between autism and vaccinations of any kind.

Signs and Symptoms 

As Autism spans a huge spectrum of severity, individuals can display a variety of signs and symptoms. There is a saying, “Once you have met someone with autism, you have met one person with autism” — meaning that not everyone with autism exhibits the same symptoms. 

However, these are the main symptoms that a child who has autism may exhibit:

  • Poor or no eye contact
  • Repetitive movements like hand flapping, spinning, or rocking
  • Fixating on an object 
  • Rigid adherence to a routine and extreme distress if the routine has changed 
  • Echolalia (the individual will repeat words or phrases that they have heard without understanding context)
  • Lining objects up
  • Persistent communication difficulties (either nonverbal or unable to apply vocabulary in a conversation) 
  • Intense sensory responses (distressed by loud noises, hates wearing particular materials, or enjoys putting their hands everywhere for the sensation)
  • Social difficulties (they will often isolate themselves or play standing next to another child without wanting to ‘play’ with them)
  • Fixed obsessions, whether that be a favorite TV show or a preferred method of transport

There is also a difference in signs and symptoms by gender—females tend to be quieter and like to go unnoticed, whereas males are typically more vocal.

Developmental Milestones for Babies and Toddlers

Consult with your doctor if your child hasn’t demonstrated the following behaviors by the corresponding age.

  • 6 months: Doesn’t respond with a smile or happy expression
  • 9 months: Doesn’t mimic sounds or facial expressions
  • 12 months: Doesn’t babble or coo
  • 14 months: Doesn’t gesture, point, or wave
  • 16 months: Doesn’t say single words
  • 18 months: Doesn’t play pretend or “make-believe”
  • 24 months: Doesn’t use two-word phrases
  • Any age: Loses language or social skills

How it’s Diagnosed 

Autism can only be diagnosed by a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. The initial route is to meet with your family doctor, who would then refer you to the appropriate services. A psychologist or psychiatrist would likely assess the child examining family history and the developmental stages that the child has achieved. This will likely be followed by a specific autism assessment tool which would be able to correctly diagnose the child.

Treatments and Therapies

There is no cure for autism, however there are a wide variety of treatments and therapies that can be implemented. 

Occupational therapists can offer adaptations to the home and school environment as well as applying strategies to support their social difficulties.

Physical therapy can be implemented if the child has mobility challenges due to having multiple conditions, such as dyspraxia (a disorder that affects movement and coordination). Physical therapy can support a child’s spatial awareness, helping them avoid bumping into objects and strengthening their core muscles.

Speech and language therapists work with parents, children, and educators to support communication challenges. This may include using picture symbols to help nonverbal children communicate their needs or support those who have high-functioning autism to initiate and maintain social conversations.

Behavior therapists work with children, parents, and educators to “teach” the children who have autism appropriate behavior. This could be in the form of a social story, in which the therapist explains a real-life event that may occur and discusses appropriate reactions with the child. Behavior therapists also help children who have autism develop coping strategies  when they feel upset or distressed.

Although medication is not for everyone, medication for some children with autism may be prescribed, especially if they are exhibiting Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder behaviors, such as lack of impulse control.

While there may be no cure for autism spectrum disorder, early intensive treatment can have a positive impact in the lives of many children.

Resources and Support 

Visual aids and visual supports can serve as important tools for children who have autism. They can be used in the form of a structured timetable for children or simply carried around on a keyring to help them communicate in some situations. 

Social Stories by Carol Gray is another great resource to help children understand and manage real life situations.

There are also a number of organizations and charities that offer social groups for children, as well as parent support groups, both in-person and on Facebook, which are hugely beneficial in sharing ideas and reassuring parents that they are not alone. Often these groups offer respite breaks, like a trusted ‘buddy’ who takes the child out for the day allowing the parents time to rest.

Meet The Expert

Kelly Park

Kelly has a BA Hons in Special Educational Needs and Inclusive Education, her Post Graduate in Autism, and is currently working on her 3rd year Masters in Mental Health Science. She has worked in the field of Autism for 20+ years working with babies, children, and adults. She has served as a nursery nurse, special needs teaching assistant in an Autistic unit, and a Study Skills and Mental Health Mentor in further education. She is a mum to two sons aged 17 and 19 who have Aspergers and ADHD so she provides the benefit of both personal and professional experience to enhance her ability to support individuals who have Autism, ADHD, and Mental Health challenges.