Development and autism
Autistic children might develop skills at different rates from typically developing children. They might also develop skills in a different order from other children.
For example, autistic children might start to use a few single words around 12 months of age and then develop language differently from typically developing children as they get older. Or they might be able to recite the alphabet or count beyond 20 but might not be able to use language to make requests or say hello.
Some autistic children develop strengths in particular areas, like naming colours, remembering routes to familiar places, or recognising words in the supermarket. But they might not always be able to generalise these strengths. This means they might not be able to go from naming colours to answering questions about the colours in a picture, or from recognising words to reading books.
If you identify your autistic child's strengths and abilities, you can work with these strengths to help your child develop new skills.
Interaction, joint attention and autism
Autistic children might interact with people in a different way from typically developing children.
For example, autistic children might not respond to their own names, smile when someone smiles at them, or notice facial expressions. But they often develop their own way of letting their parents know what they want, although they might not use the gestures that typically developing children use. For example, they might lead their parents by the hand rather than pointing to show their carers something interesting.
Autistic children often have difficulty with joint attention, which is using eye contact and gestures to share experiences with others. These difficulties can make it harder for autistic children to develop communication and language skills. For example, if a parent is pointing to a picture of a dog, but the child is interested in another part of the picture, it might be harder for the child to learn the link between the picture of a dog and the word ’dog’.
Attention is a skill that develops over time. Our article on learning to pay attention explains how you can use play to help your autistic child build this skill.
Language, communication and autism
Many autistic children develop language skills at a different rate and in a different order from typically developing children. This means they might not understand what you say to them or might have difficulty following instructions. Some autistic children can find it difficult to use spoken language to ask for things, or tell other people what they’re thinking or feeling.
Differences in communication can make social situations like playing with other children a little more difficult.
You can use strategies like role-play and video-modelling to build social skills for autistic children. These strategies can also help with building social skills for autistic teenagers and conversation skills for autistic teenagers.
High-level skills and autism
We need a range of high-level skills and abilities to do daily tasks like working cooperatively with others and prioritising things. These skills include:
- paying attention
- coping with change
- being organised, managing time and remembering things
- managing emotions.
These skills develop over time and are affected by other skills like language and thinking.
Autistic children often develop these high-level skills at different rates from typically developing children. These differences can affect autistic children’s learning and their ability to show adults what they’ve learned. For example, a child might know they have to summarise a news story for geography homework, but have difficulty working out how to get started, or they might have maths and English homework and have difficulty prioritising which one to do first, or they might have difficulty coping when they make a mistake.
Some autistic children need to work hard on learning and developing these skills right into adulthood.
Difficulties with high-level skills and abilities can sometimes lead to challenging behaviour. Social stories, visual timetables and other strategies can help you with managing challenging behaviour in autistic children and teenagers.
Attention to detail and autism
Autistic children often have strengths in noticing details and patterns. For example, some autistic children might learn letters, numbers and shapes more easily than typically developing children. And some autistic children might notice things that other children might not notice.
Sometimes, their strong attention to detail might mean that autistic children need support to see ‘the big picture’. They might notice a lot of details in a situation, but not be able to put that information together to figure out what it all means. For example, if they read The very hungry caterpillar, they might remember that the caterpillar liked strawberries, but not understand that the caterpillar’s food helps it grow into a butterfly.