It was suggested to me to write something about autism for Exciting Education and one of the topics that had been suggested was a “Top Ten Tips on how to identify autism in children” but this is not a simple picture.
I mulled this over in my mind for a couple of days and the more I thought about it, the more alarm bells began to go off in my head. How can I simplify something so complicated?
Firstly, I am not going to lead you to believe that I am all knowing on this subject and what I do know is through study and having the privilege of working closely in the day to day lives of some adults that have been diagnosed with varying degrees of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).
Guidelines, rules and tips are useful but they can appear to trivialise the true complexities of the individual. To use an analogy; when we look at building a piece of machinery like an engine or a robot we can read a book and follow a method and eventually, with the correct tools and skill set we get a finished product. However, this only scratches the surface when we try to treat the human mind in the same way; many people will never truly comprehend the world in which individuals with ASD have to make sense of.
So with some trepidation I am going to outline some behaviours to look for, but I am also going to draw from my personal experience. These are by no means hard and fast rules and a lot of what I cover can be observed in many people without there being the presence of ASD.
Early detection of ASD can make remarkable difference not only to the lives of those diagnosed, but also to their families, friends, teachers etc. The most notable sign can be apparent quite early on in infancy. However this is not sufficient enough to require a diagnosis and needs to be paired with diminished acquisition of other developmental milestones in later years.
ASD babies may not bond as well to their parents as one might expect. Yes, this is a very broad statement but it is part of the reason why it is so difficult to diagnose ASD early on. As a parent we lovingly bring up our children and note those developmental milestones. However each child is different and reaches these milestones at different points. This is why it is hard to pinpoint ASD without a combination of signs and symptoms and allowing time for individual differences.
ASD is often diagnosed later in early years when there is a notable difference in how children comprehend themselves and others. Children with ASD may not understand another individual’s happiness or pain and is mostly aware only of themselves.
Some learnt behaviours we take for granted. For instance eye contact, most of us have been guilty of staring at someone or something for an inappropriate amount of time, however, as children we are usually told to stop staring and that it is rude to stare. We soon become aware of other peoples discomfort at being stared at and our own discomfort at having been caught staring. Sometimes ASD can be characterised by inappropriate lengths of eye contact, either being too long or too short. An individual with ASD may stare for long periods of time at someone and be oblivious to the other person’s discomfort. This is because eye contact is learned through social cues which children with ASD often have to try very hard to learn but is something that most of us learn without even realising it.
It is no wonder that some children with ASD suffer with serious anxiety especially as some learnt behaviours come so easily to us through social cues and it is taken as given that everyone will possess them and express them appropriately.
Anxiety is prevalent amongst us all but the degree to which we experience anxiety is key to understanding some of the difficulties that children with ASD face. So much attention is given to detail, that the bigger picture can create a world of chaos: a seemingly calm environment to some may be exhausting and frustrating for individuals with a diagnosis of ASD. The use of sensory rooms or calmer environments are invaluable in reducing the anxiety in the everyday lives of those who live with ASD.
During my time working with adults that have a diagnosis of ASD it was clear that different sensory information affected them in different ways just as it does for all of us. Some of us have an acute sense of smell, some of us are more sensitive auditory or visual information.
Sensitivity to sensory information is quite a general description but actually these sensitivities can be quite specific with respect to ASD. You may find children and adults with ASD walking around with their hands over their ears or they may have invested in a quality pair of headphones as they are particularly sensitive to sound. Some are sensitive to touch and might enter your personal space in order to touch your hair, skin and clothes etc. Others may be overwhelmed by their sense of smell. For some, none or all of these may be present.
Things to consider
In outlining some of the ways that it is possible to identify ASD in children and young adults. I have tried to highlight how these differences are present in us all at varying degrees and in doing so I have hopefully reiterated the point that I so often hear when discussing ASD – which is that we all appear on the spectrum. Any one of these signs or symptoms alone may not be enough to warrant a diagnosis, however when these signs appear alongside each other and other key predictors (such as slower speech development, learning difficulties, physical aggressiveness, obsessive behaviours, self-harm, occasionally the presence of a special talent and many more) there is more of a reason to investigate further. Often what we consider to be negative behaviours associated with ASD are usually the result of the pure frustration at having to interact with a world in a way that does not come naturally.
Although diagnosis is important, my aim here is to encourage people to understand some key signs of ASD so that children and parents can find adequate support if necessary; preferably sooner rather than later.
By Shoshannah Harrison, Freelance Consultant