Autism & Children

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ASD affects more males than females and it is estimated that one person in every hundred has ASD. ASD can be diagnosed by the age of three, although some children are diagnosed earlier and some people may not receive diagnosis until their adult life. There is no known cure, but with appropriate education and support people with ASD can be helped to live their lives with as much dignity and independence as possible.

This journey starts with early identification and intervention and it is critical that the following CORE areas are understood and receive specific targeted intervention:-

Impaired Communication

Communication involves both understanding language (receptive skills) and providing information (expressive skills). The abilities of individuals with ASD vary widely, in that some children will have a good grasp of comprehension (e.g. “sit down”) but lack expressive skills (e.g. “my tummy hurts”) and vice versa. Many children with ASD experience difficultly with non-verbal communication, such as eye contact, facial expressions and smiling. Children with ASD often fail to understand words or phrases that are abstract e.g. we’ll go swimming later” or “I love you” or phrases that have a double meaning. For example, if a teacher says to a child with ASD “clear the table” the child may go over and push everything off it. Or the person may interpret things very literally e.g. “give yourself a hand”.

Some children have Echolalia, which is the repetition of words, signs, phrases or sentences spoken by other people. Some children use this as a communication device. For example, an adult says “do you want a car?” and the child might say “want a car” which may mean “yes” or it may just be a repetition of the last words heard. A child may repeat the same phrase over and over again as a means of regulating their own behaviour, such as a child repeating aloud “time to clean up” while cleaning.

Impaired Social Skills

ASD is characterised by an impaired ability to engage in social relationships and can result in serious deficits in the ability to make friends. In fact, children with ASD often behave as if other people do not exist. This is demonstrated in various ways including failure to respond to their name when called, appearing not to listen when spoken to, unusual or inappropriate facial expressions, avoidance of eye contact, failure to respond to affection and sometimes treating people as if they were objects. Often children will acknowledge an adult only for the purpose of getting a need gratified and will return to ignoring the adult thereafter.

If a child with ASD has any social skills, they are characteristically learned and awkward in nature. Individuals with ASD also experience problems maintaining reciprocal relationships. Additional difficulties include the inability to take on another’s perspective, feelings and emotions, or provide or seek comfort, in conventional ways – for example, a child with ASD hurts another child and cannot understand why he is crying. Individuals with ASD tend to crave predictability and function best in highly structured situations. They are likely to become extremely dependant on elements of sameness in their lives, to the extent that they can have difficulty coping with changes in their environment or routine.

Impairments in Imagination

Children with ASD may have problems with imaginative play. They may not see a toy car as a car but rather as an object that rattles and makes funny patterns when the wheels are spun. This may account for part of the reason why such children have difficultly interacting with peers and joining in games with others. Children with ASD typically have a narrow range of interests. They also may engage in repetitive, stereotyped body movements such as hand flicking, spinning or rocking. They may insist upon carrying certain objects around with them to help them feel secure. Need for sameness might extend to food. An individual with Autism may have a preference or dislike certain colours, textures or temperatures of foods. Some individuals focus on certain topics of interest. The person might remain intrigued with one or two topics such as music or modes of transportation, and exhaust everyone who comes into contact with him about their knowledge in that area of interest.

Sensory Difficulties in Children

More often than not, individuals with ASD have unusual reactions to sensory stimulation. Some individuals show a hypersensitivity to stimuli, for example they can hear lights buzzing, cannot tolerate touch, fascinated with spinning objects or must smell everything. While others display a hyposensitivity to stimuli, such as a high pain tolerance or acting as if deaf. A person with ASD may be fascinated with a piece of shiny paper or may spend hours rocking or watching objects twirl. In general, these types of reactions are providing some sort of sensory stimulation for the individual. An assessment by an Occupational Therapist will help your child if he/she is experiencing sensory problems. 

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Autism NI also provides a range of awareness and specialist training opportunities for professionals and carers. Please check out our Training section on this website. Other resources are available from Autism NI including the Keyhole Booklet for children & Rainbow Kit for Early Years, so please visit Our Publications section on our website.