Autism is just one of several development disorders that can affect children, including dyspraxia, other ‘autistic spectrum disorders’ (ASDs) such as Asperger Syndrome, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette's Syndrome, neurological complications such as cerebral palsy, and developmental coordination disorder (DCD).
Symptoms seen in children with autism
Children with autism usually show symptoms by the age of 2. Generally, they find it difficult to communicate, understand emotions and interact with others; some may also have learning difficulties. One of the earliest signs in children with autism is a lack of babbling – a usual early form of communication – by the age of 1 year. Other symptoms in young children with autism include not responding when you call their name, not making friends easily at playgroup or school and difficulty understanding emotions or new situations.
Children with autism tend not to use their imagination when playing and can be obsessive about collecting things, memorising trivia or writing lists. Other signs in children with autism include sitting up or walking late, being unusually sensitive to noise and touch, clumsiness, unusual mannerisms such as rocking or walking on tip-toes, or being very upset if their routine is disrupted.
Asperger syndrome is similar to autism, but generally has less severe symptoms, so it is important to get a thorough assessment and accurate diagnosis for your child.
What causes autism in children?
The causes of autism are not yet fully understood, but it is thought that genetics may play a part. There is no reputable scientific evidence to support any link to vaccinations in children with autism.
How are children with autism diagnosed?
Your GP will first observe and ask you questions about your child’s behaviour and may use a questionnaire called CHAT (CHecklist for Autism in Toddlers), as well as other tests such as hearing tests to rule out other causes. Once your child is referred to a specialist, a complex series of tests called the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule may be used to help make a diagnosis. Children with autism symptoms may need to be assessed by several different health professionals before a diagnosis can be made.
There are a number of private organisations that offer independent assessment and therapy for autism in children and other social and developmental disorders. Often, these centres accept independent enquiries as well as GP referrals. Having your child assessed privately can avoid waiting lists and provide a wide range of specialised assessment in addition to the standard evaluations. Private treatment can also benefit children with autism by being highly specialised and tailored directly to their individual needs.
What treatments are available for children with autism?
Following diagnosis, children with autism will be treated by a team of specialists including occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, play therapists and child psychologists. Therapies for children with autism may include applied behaviour analysis (ABA) to help with communication and social functioning. You and your child will also be given intensive training in skills needed when your child starts school. Physiotherapy, occupational, speech and behavioural therapies are also available. Sometimes, children with autism or ASDs may be given medication to reduce symptoms such as obsessive or hyperactive behaviour.