Autism is referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which acknowledges that the disorder has is variable and affects people to different degrees.
It is often helpful to parents to know that their child probably does not exhibit all the symptoms that can be associated with ASD.
When children are diagnosed with autism, they meet particular criteria – and this criteria is quite wide ranging. Children can show that they meet the criteria to a larger or lesser degree, and it can be shown by a huge range of different kinds of communication and behaviour.
Essentially, they have difficulty with socialising, understanding and demonstrating appropriate emotions, understanding the emotions of other people, developing relationships and understanding and using nonverbal language skilfully.
To receive an ASD diagnosis children also demonstrate some other “traits” such as being obsessive about certain topics or using repetitive movements. People on the ASD spectrum are often rigid in their thinking. They may not like things to change or have difficulty moving from one activity to another quickly and easily.
Children on the ASD spectrum have difficulty understanding the intricacies of communication in some way. As babies, parents notice that their child is not very interactive with others. Older children may revert to their own topics of interest in conversation.
Small children with autism often don’t use communication for the whole range of intentions that other children use. For example, they may not ask meaningful questions or make comments. They don’t seem to understand polite, interactive language, such as greeting people and saying goodbye, and need to be taught these skills in an active way.
When children with autism start talking they often repeat exactly what they have heard, and this is called echolalia. They sometimes talk in what seems to be their own language and don’t seem to worry that other people can’t understand them. Other children on the spectrum can demonstrate high level verbal skills. These children are sometimes noticed to be “quirky” with a wide range of interests and amazing general knowledge.
As children grow, children with autism are usually happy to play alone, and don’t seek company. They can have difficulty with the subtleties of social skills, and of course as they get older they are expected to use these skills to a higher level. They tend to have specific toys or activities that they are quite obsessive about. Sometimes this can be accompanied by unusual hand movements like flapping, or spinning around. Often autism affects a child’s sensory system so they may be either more sensitive or less sensitive than other children to sound and touch.
Some children with autism have a good understanding of what they hear but seem impulsive about whether they act on it or not. It can be very difficult to get their attention. Children with autism don’t seem to understand about eye contact instinctively, and can actively resist this close interaction. Or their eye contact could just be qualitatively different to others.
Being “on the spectrum” is definitely NOT a “one size fits all”.