What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that affects the way an individual relates to their environment and interacts with other people. Autism can present differently in children, which is why the word spectrum is used to cover the wide-ranging challenges and varying extent to which people are affected.  The term ASD includes Autism, Asperger’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

It is estimated 1 in 100 Australians are on the autism spectrum, and it is four times more common in boys than girls.

What does autism look like?

Whilst it is noted certain characteristics of autism are present to a greater or lesser extent across the spectrum (and some not experienced at all), these are the key differences autism is characterised by and examples of how they may present:

Difficulties with Social Interaction
  • Difficulty or inability understanding and expressing their needs and emotions and interpreting those of others.
  • Difficulty developing and maintaining relationships with others, which may lead to avoidance of any social interaction, withdrawal and appearing distant and aloof.
  • Lack of shared interests with other people.
Difficulties with Communication
  • While many people with autism are highly articulate and fluent, others may have speech impairments, and some may be unable to speak at all.
  • Difficulty using language to initiate conversation and respond to others.
  • May speak their mind or interpret/present information in black and white manner.
  • Difficulty displaying and missing/misinterpreting non-verbal communication e.g. eye contact or body language.
  • Conversations may focus only on topics of interest, involve repeated phrases and questions.
Restricted & Repetitive Interests & Behaviours
  • May exhibit an intense interest and focus on certain subject matters.
  • May have excellent memory skills and high level of attention to details, patterns, codes etc.
  • Non-typical behaviours are often used to communicate feelings or adapt to a situation in order to reduce uncertainty in their environment:
    • Strict adherence to rules and routines
    • Repetitive body movements e.g. hand flapping
    • Repetitive use of objects e.g. turning lights on and off
Sensory Sensitivity
  • Unusual or heightened sensitivity to everyday sounds or textures
  • Unusual sensory interests e.g. sniffing objects of staring intently

Signs & Symptoms in Early Childhood

Diagnosis of ASD is generally completed through observation and assessment by a multidisciplinary team often including a paediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist and speech pathologist. Generally children show signs of ASD by age 2, and although there is no single indicator here are several signs that could suggest autism in a young child:

  • Inexplicable tantrums
  • Unusual motor movements e.g. hand flapping, spinning, walking on tip toes
  • Extreme difficulty coping with change
  • Playing with objects unusually e.g. lining up or spinning repetitively
  • Very strong interest/attachment to limited number of games or toys
  • Afraid of or distressed reaction to everyday sounds
  • Using peripheral vision to look at objects
  • Fascination with moving objects or certain textures
  • High tolerance to pain and temperature
Social & Communication

12 Months

  • Not responding to name
  • Not waving or pointing

18 Months

  • Speech absent

24 Months

  • No spontaneous phrases
  • Loss of words previously used or repetitive speech
  • Selective hearing e.g. ignoring human speech
  • Looks away when you speak to him/her
  • Does not return your smile
  • Lack of interest in other children & prefers to play alone
  • Does not share interests with others, seems to be in ‘own world’

Supporting your Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder through Play

Playtime can have an important role in helping children with autism to communicate and address challenging behaviours:

  • Kids with autism have great visuo-spatial memories so they have a strong understanding of how shapes/objects relate to each other and space. Toys that involve these skills including: shape and colour sorting, puzzles, construction or drawing, colouring, support their individual strengths and interests, which is an excellent place to start!
  • Games that involve social interaction are beneficial to encourage communication with others.
    • Simple multiplayer board games offer the chance to play with others – which can be challenging to kids with ASD – it’s an opportunity to learn to take notice of others and practise social skills like turn-taking, cooperation.
    • Pretend play is particularly important for developing skills needed to develop social relationships, i.e. language, communication, empathy.
  • Physical Games: exercise has been found to reduce the incidence of inappropriate behaviours. Ball games, trampolines, sand pits to name a few are a easy ways to play and often enjoyed by children with autism.