With autism diagnoses on the rise and the terms autistic and spectrum being so common in the media, parents are worried. How can you know if your child might be on the spectrum? Autism can be tricky to diagnose, particularly in very young children, but there are signs that you can look for. Early diagnosis is important for getting the best treatment and outcomes. 1Life spoke to Vicky Lamb from Autism South Africa to find out common possible signs of autism and what to do if your child is diagnosed autistic.
What is autism?
Lamb, Autism SA’s national education facilitator, explains that autism is a developmental disability. People with this condition may communicate, interact, behave and learn differently from others.
Lamb says it’s important to understand that autism is a spectrum. One child’s condition may be very different to another’s. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can vary widely.
ASD is broken down into three levels:
- Level 1: low-support-needs
- Level 2: moderate-support-needs
- and Level 3: high-support-needs
It is not always possible to determine the IQ of an autistic child. The ASD Level categorisations define how to respond to their specific behaviours with support.
The signs of autism
While there are many potential signs that could indicate autism, it is important to note that each sign on its own does not suggest a problem. They could indicate another condition; a different cognitive impairment or a hearing problem.
- A lack of verbal communication or a delay in speech.
- Repetitive play or behaviour. Does your child do the same activity over and over again?
- Rigid thinking. Your child becomes unsettled or anxious without routine.
- Extremes of happiness, anger or sadness.
- Self-stimulation; like spinning, rocking or tapping their bodies.
- Self-harming; banging their head against a wall or biting themselves.
- Difficulties with imaginative play. Your child doesn’t pretend that a block is a car.
- Hypersensitivity to stimuli. They don’t like loud noises, or may not like being touched or cuddled.
- Sometimes they appear not to hear, although they are clearly able to at other times.
- Odd attachments to an object that isn’t a cuddly toy or blankie; for instance, a teaspoon.
- Playing alone. Although many children don’t play WITH others until the age of three, the autistic child doesn’t like to interact at all.
- Limited or no eye contact.
- No fear of danger.
A lot of these can be normal toddler behaviours. So it’s important to look closely at each specific behaviour or at the number of other behaviours the child shows.
What to do next
So, you have noticed a group of autism-associated behaviours… What now? Visit your GP, paediatrician or local clinic or hospital with a list of your concerns. If they are unable to help your child, they will refer you to a developmental paediatrician or a paediatric neurologist for further assessment and testing.
If your child is autistic, treatment will depend on your child’s specific conditions. An occupational therapist, physiotherapist, speech therapist or child psychologist might be recommended.
You will also need to identify what kind of support your child will need academically. Most will need to attend a school or facility that offers specific support for their developmental needs. The Department of Education has a number of schools for children with special needs, including autism.
Once your child has been assessed and diagnosed, visit your local education district and apply for an autism-specific school. They will assess your child and place them in the appropriate school based on that. Some of these schools even take children from the age of three, because of the importance of early intervention.
There are also private schools that offer autism support from preschool years.
Some autistic children may be able attend a mainstream school. These children may need an educational facilitator, educational tools or certain accommodations to support their learning.
Lamb stresses that early intervention is crucial to making sure your child does their best. Don’t wait until primary school to “see how things work out”.
Living with autism
While it is distressing to receive a diagnosis that means your child will face challenges in life, Lamb has some words of reassurance to offer.
“Many people with autism go on to have jobs and life partners and to lead rewarding lives. Even those with high-support needs can experience joy and fulfilment. Autism really isn’t all doom and gloom. Especially with early intervention that can help with the management of the condition.”
For more expert advice for families, head over to the 1Life blog’s parenting section.