Autism 101 – what is it and what should you look for?

4 min read   •   March 25, 2021
Dr Jeanné Roux – Educational Psychologist

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of developmental disorders that impair a person’s ability to communicate and interact with other people. As the name suggests, ASD refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by a person’s challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech, and nonverbal communication. Despite ASD consisting of a range of conditions, there are no subtypes since ASD may present very differently from person to person, along with differences in presentation among genders.

How does autism present?

Every person will have a different set of strengths and challenges but still fall under ASD. People diagnosed with ASD may present with more mild symptoms, while others may present with more severe symptoms – such individuals require significant support to function in their daily lives.

As aforementioned, the presentation of ASD may differ between people in both severity and characteristics. People with ASD may also differ in their level of intelligence, as some have average or above-average intelligence while others may have a learning disability and require assistance with daily functioning.

Common characteristics of ASD

Characteristics that have been noted with some typicality include:

  • Challenges with communication and interaction with others;
  • Difficulties in reading social cues (i.e. how others may think or feel);
  • Challenges in expressing their thoughts and feelings;
  • Sensory sensitivity (e.g. bright lights, loud noises, etc.) which causes these individuals to become overwhelmed, stressed, or uncomfortable;
  • Repetitive behaviours;
  • Becoming anxious, upset, or angered by unfamiliar situations or changes in routine;
  • Taking additional time to process information.

Verbal ASD challenges

It is common for roughly 40% of ASD individuals not to speak at all, while between 25 – 30% of others will develop language skills. Some language and speech challenges may include:

  • Delayed speech development;
  • Using a flat, robotic voice or speaking in a sing-song manner;
  • Echolalia;
  • Difficulties with pronouns, i.e. using I/me/he/she/they incorrectly;
  • Rarely using physical gestures;
  • An inability to stay on topic.

Behavioural ASD challenges

Autistic people may also display or engage in behaviours such as:

  • Repetitive behaviours;
  • Specific rituals;
  • Fixation on certain activities, objects, or topics;
  • Constant pacing back and forth;
  • Fussy eating habits (many ASD individuals have textural issues);
  • Not participating in pretend play;
  • Impulsiveness;
  • Aggression;
  • An inability to pay attention or a short attention span;

What causes ASD?

Several factors may influence the development of ASD, but there is no known singular cause. There have been rumoured causes of ASD such as diet, infections, or vaccines; however, each of these has not been conclusively proven to cause ASD. Typical comorbidities include medical challenges such as gastrointestinal disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, and mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and attention difficulties.

How to identify autism

Signs of ASD typically appear by the age of two to three years. Some children present with developmental delays as early as 18 months. In other rarer cases, ASD may be picked up by caregivers and teachers only later in the person’s life. Typically, when making a diagnosis of ASD, it will either have been identified by a doctor during early check-ups or when a parent becomes concerned and consults a multidisciplinary team of teachers, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors.

Also read: Might my child have ADHD?

Signs of ASD

Signs of ASD to which a parent/teacher may want to pay special attention include:

  • Preference for solitary time;
  • Avoidance of eye contact;
  • No response to their given name by their first birthday;
  • Lack of response to the emotions of others or appearing not to understand the emotions of others;
  • An unwillingness to be comforted when upset;
  • Avoidance or rejection of physical contact;
  • Meeting of some developmental milestones but later losing them;
  • Appearing to have a lack of facial expressions (i.e. smiling);
  • Challenges with abstract thinking;
  • Fixation on or a very clear preference for certain subjects;
  • Challenges in making friends or maintaining friendships.

Also read: Parental self-care

If your child is experiencing one or a combination of these signs or symptoms, they may need professional help. Consult a psychiatrist or psychologist to determine the correct treatment and course of action for your child.