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Understanding autism: a broad spectrum of experiences

Chiefly characterised by its effects on social skills and communication, autism can be tough to get to grips with due to its varied ‘case by case’ nature.

The term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was introduced in 2013 to bring together a number of life-long conditions and goes some way to conveying the broad range of challenges people with ASD face – the struggles and, indeed, strengths that can seem unique to them.  

Detecting ASD in a child can be difficult as a result. However, early diagnosis and intervention is hugely important in finding the best possible individualised support for them. 

What causes autism?

The cause of autism is unknown, though there is a genetic component. If there is one child with ASD in the family, there is an increased chance of having another. Brain development during pregnancy and a history of complications during the prenatal, peri-natal or post-natal periods might also play a part. 

As previously noted, the impact of ASD can vary. Some people may be highly-skilled in their ability to learn, think and interact, allowing them to lead independent lives. Others may be severely challenged and require significant daily support. Those previously diagnosed with having Asperger’s syndrome, for example, will be of average to above average intelligence. While they may have fewer problems with speech, they may still have difficulties understanding and processing language. 

What are the early signs?

Indicators will usually appear by the age of 2 or 3. Some development delays can be diagnosed as early as 18 months:

  • Little or no smiling or “warm” expressions by 6 months
  • Little or no babbling, back-and-forth gestures or responses to name by 12 months
  • Very few or no words by 16 months

At any age:

  • Any loss of language or social skills
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Preference for solitude
  • Restricted interests
  • Resistance to minor changes or a reliance on routine
  • Persistent repetition of words or phrases, repetitive behaviours
  • Unusual sensitivity to light, sounds, smells, tastes or textures

Some signs of ASD may not reveal themselves until your child starts nursery or school. 

What are the next steps?

If you notice any of the above signs or are concerned about your child’s development, you should consult your GP. 

They can then refer you to a paediatrician who will assess any developmental delay. 

Other specialists, such as psychologists, psychiatrists or speech and language therapists, may also be involved. Diagnosis is based on a range of signs and characteristics, which may involve a series of interviews to assess your family history and the child’s background. Your child may also be asked to complete specific activities so their ability levels can be observed. 

A physical examination will rule out other possible causes, such as underlying neurofibromatosis or Down’s syndrome. This will also check for other physical or mental health problems. Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, epilepsy, dyslexia, dyspraxia anxiety and attention issues can sometimes accompany ASD.

ASD in adults

Some people grow up without ever being diagnosed, but it’s never too late to do so. A diagnosis can help an adult decide what support will improve their life and gain access to specific services and entitlements. While some people may worry about being “labelled”, it can actually help their family gain a better understanding and appreciate the challenges they’ve faced.

Living with ASD

Treatment should begin directly after diagnosis, to start them on the road to learning new skills and maximising their strengths. Treatment can include everything from behavioural and educational therapy to medication, and is tailored to each individual’s needs with the help of a qualified healthcare team. 

The State provides early intervention and funding in a number of pre-school settings. When it comes to education, you will be able to consult with professionals on whether a mainstream school, special class or school specifically designed for children with ASD and other needs is the right fit.

There are also an increasing number of resources available for adults with ASD who may have felt hindered by their condition but want to fulfil their educational and career ambitions to the fullest extent.

For a host of information and support, visit the Irish Society for Autism’s website.

To read more on family health, head for the Vhi Health Hub