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Autism, or Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) - is a lifelong condition affecting how people communicate and interact with others and how they relate to the world about them.

Autism is diagnosed by two elements: social communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive behaviours or interests. It can be described as a continuum of normal development or a spectrum, from mild, or high-functioning autism, often known as Asperger Syndrome, to a severe, non-verbal condition.

It is estimated that about one in 100 people are autistic, a greater number of boys than girls. Autism can co-exist with other pervasive conditions, such as ADHD, PDA or dyslexia. The diagnostic criteria for autism are continually being reviewed and developed.

All people with Autism have some degree of social and communication difficulties. Some people may have accompanying learning disabilities, others have average or above-average intelligence.

People with Autism experience difficulties with some or all of:

  • Language - speaking and understanding
  • Interaction with others
  • Independence skills
  • Personal development
  • Attention difficulties
  • Obsessional attention paid to a small number of limited, often repetitive tasks
  • Wider interests
  • Problem solving
  • Motor skills
  • School work / intellectual development
  • Social skills
  • Sensory issues, either a heightened awareness of the senses, e.g. loud noises, or reduced awareness of senses eg walking over toys to reach a goal.

Characteristics of Autism

Language development

Children with autism usually have difficulty with language acquisition, often developing language later than normal. Alternatively, they may develop language at the same time as other children, but their language use is unusual. In addition, there may be difficulties with speech sounds and voice, as well as pragmatics – or how we use language socially. Severely autistic children can be pre-verbal and reliant on visual cues.

Social interaction 

The difficulties in social interaction pose very particular problems. Children with an Autism find it difficult to read social cues and non-literal signals about what other people are feeling. For instance, a person with an Autism may not be able to spot when a companion is upset, angry or bored.

They may come across as lacking in empathy for other people’s feelings, which could be interpreted by others as wilful self-centredness. Children with Autism may show no interest in what other people are doing, evening avoiding joining in games with their siblings, peers or parents. Parents often describe them as being engrossed in a world of their own.

Some children with autism may often show a desire to be sociable, but their attempts to make friends may be thwarted by their lack of comprehension of the social nuances of negotiating friendships.

Repetitive routines and behaviours

People with Autism often say they like ‘sameness’. They dislike things that upset their routines, because routine gives them a sense of security. Children with autism often repetitively perform the same actions and some show no signs of developing imaginative play. Others may become fascinated by a particular topic, for example dinosaurs, and become extremely knowledgeable about it, but be uninterested in branching out to other related subjects. They are often thought to have particular interests in systems eg maths, IT or science.

Impairment of imagination does not mean that people with an Autism are necessarily uncreative; some are very creative. It is more that lack of flexibility of thought, the inability to foresee the consequences of their actions, and inability to put themselves in another person’s place and understand their point of view are all likely to cause difficulties for them.

Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups. Generally, diagnosis occurs after the age of five, but can be as young as two, and is the result of screening profiles and behavioural assessments.  There is no physiological test for autism.

Diagnosis usually involves assessment by a multi-disciplinary team, made up of a paediatrician, psychologist and a speech and language therapist. The team will want to monitor your child's behaviour over time, try therapies and ask the opinion of parents and teachers.

If you think your child may have an Autsim, you should go to your GP and request a referral to a consultant or speech and language therapist with an understanding of the condition.

According to the National Autistic Society, 63 per cent of children on the autism spectrum are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them. Moreover, 17 per cent of autistic children have been suspended from school; 48 per cent of these had been suspended three or more times; and four per cent had been expelled from one or more schools.

Autistic children will require support at all levels of their academic career, from mild support and advice for the high-functioning Aspergers student, to intensive interaction from programmes such as SCERTS and TEACCH for more severe conditions.

With thanks to the National Autistic Society.


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