About autistic children and autism
Autistic children have three key characteristics.
Difficulty interacting and communicating with others
For example, children might:
- not use eye contact to get someone’s attention
- not use words or gestures to communicate
- be confused by language and take things literally.
For example, children might collect only sticks or play only with cars.
For example, children might:
- make repetitive noises like grunts, throat-clearing or squealing
- do repetitive movements like body-rocking or hand-flapping
- do things like flicking a light switch repeatedly.
Autistic children might also be under-sensitive or over-sensitive to taste, touch, sight and sounds. For example, they might:
- be easily upset by certain sounds
- eat only foods with a certain texture
- seek vibrating objects like the washing machine
- flutter fingers to the side of their eyes to watch the light flicker.
Autistic children have these characteristics because their brains have developed differently from other children’s brains.
raisingchildren.net.au uses ‘identity first’ language to talk about autism, rather than ‘person first’ language. This involves referring to ‘autistic children’, for example, rather than to ‘children with autism’. Many autistic people prefer this approach. We’re making this change over time, so you’ll still see some articles that use a different approach.
What causes autism?
We don’t know exactly what causes autism. There might be several causes, including brain development and genetic factors.
The brains of autistic children tend to grow faster than average during early childhood, especially during the first three years of life. We don’t know why this rapid growth happens. But it means that in autistic children, parts of the brain communicate with each other in an atypical way.
Evidence strongly suggests a genetic basis to autism. But it’s unlikely that one specific gene is responsible for autism. It’s more likely that several genes combine and act together. Researchers have found many possible genes that might play a role in the development of autism.
Signs of autism
Early signs of autism usually appear before children are 2 years old.
In the first year of life, signs include differences in children’s social and communication development. For example, children who are later diagnosed with autism might:
- not smile in response to other people
- not make eye contact
- not use gestures.
In the toddler years, signs of autism become more noticeable as children are expected to start talking and playing with other children. For example, autistic children might:
- not be interested in playing with other children
- repeat everything they hear
- talk in an unusual tone of voice.
Some children have many early signs, whereas others have only a few. The number of signs varies according to children’s ages and the effect that autism has on their everyday lives.
Signs of autism in older children and teenagers might become noticeable when children have difficulty adjusting to new social situations in the school environment – for example, understanding and following instructions, making friends, and having age-appropriate interests.
Autism can be diagnosed from 12-18 months, but it’s usually from around 2 years of age.
Diagnosis usually involves many specialists and professionals testing and assessing a child – this is called a multidisciplinary assessment.
A multidisciplinary team usually includes a paediatrician, a psychologist a speech pathologist and sometimes a psychiatrist. It might also include other professionals, like an occupational therapist.
These professionals might assess a child together at the same time and in the same place. Or they might do individual assessments over a period of time in different places. If the assessment happens this way, the professionals will share and discuss their observations.
There’s no single test for autism. Instead, diagnosis is based on:
- watching how children play and interact with others – that is, how children are developing now
- reviewing children’s developmental history – that is, how children have developed in the past
- interviewing parents.
Children will get a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. The diagnosis will include support levels, which range from ‘requiring support’ to ‘requiring very substantial support’. These levels show how much help children need with their social-communication skills, and restricted, repetitive and/or sensory behaviours.
Health professionals will also assess children’s language and cognitive abilities.
Children who show difficulties only in social communication might be diagnosed with social communication disorder, rather than autism spectrum disorder.
Concerned about your child’s development: what to do
If you’re concerned about your child’s development, talk to your child and family health nurse or GP about a developmental assessment. Getting an assessment and diagnosis is the first step to helping your child and getting services and programs suited to your child’s needs.
It’s important to get help and support as soon as possible. Early therapies and supports are the best way to help autistic children develop and thrive. That’s because they can help autistic children learn the skills they need for everyday activities. Sometimes children who get early intervention need less or no support as they get older.
Autism and neurodiversity
Autism is one of the conditions that comes under the umbrella term ‘neurodiversity’.
Neurodiversity means that some people’s brains handle information differently from others. This leads to differences in the way that people learn, manage their emotions and get along with others.
The neurodiversity movement views autism and other conditions like dyslexia as normal variations in how the brain functions.