Developmental and behavioural problems are common in young children. In the majority of cases behavioural difficulties are temporary and normal development is achieved. But how do we know if a young child’s behaviour is within normal limits or when could it be a developmental disorder such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
What is Autism?
ASD is a developmental disorder in which individuals display difficulties with social interaction, communication, and with play (with often restrictive and/or repetitive patterns of behaviour).
It is important to emphasis that the disorder is called a ‘spectrum’ as no two children have the same features and can vary in severity. In 2013, ASD became the umbrella term for a group of conditions that were once considered as individual conditions such as Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder- not otherwise specified PDDNOS).
It is now estimated that approximately 1 in 70 Australians have autism. It is 4 time more common in boys than girls. Behavioural features often present before 3 years of age but may be more apparent during school years or later in life.
It is a lifelong condition with no cure, however early intervention can help children reach their full potential.
Signs and Symptoms
ASD is characterised by marked difficulties with social interaction, communication and restrictive/repetitive patterns of behaviour.
Social and communications difficulties may include;
- Delayed speech development
- Limited eye contact
- Infrequent smiling
- Lack of interest in other people
- Minimal interest in playing with peers
- Difficulties with non-verbal communication e.g body language, reading or expressing emotions , rarely using gestures e.g pointing
- No pretend play (e.g doesn’t feed dolls/teddies)
- Doesn’t consistently respond to name
- Does not enjoy situations or activities most children their age like
- Difficulties forming and maintaining friendships
Restrictive and Repetitive patterns of behaviour may include;
- Repetitive behaviours eg: rocking or hand flapping, walking on toes, playing with toys in repetitive or unimaginative way such as lining up blocks or cars instead of playing with them, and switching lights on and off.
- Restricted interests eg: being obsessed with one thing, upset if change in normal routine
- Sensory issues eg: can be high affected by sounds, smells, tastes or textures, or may seek or avoid particular sensations)
Other symptoms can include;
- sleeping problems
- tantrums/ challenging behaviours/ aggression
- learning difficulties
- attention difficulties
- emotional difficulties.
- Intellectual impairment
What causes ASD?
It is unclear what causes ASD but it is thought to be a genetic condition. Research continues to try to find the exact causes and treatment.
It is important to note that autism is NOT caused by vaccination, eating certain foods or a child’s upbringing or social circumstances.
If you are worried about a child’s behaviour, communication or social skills a good start is seeing a GP or a child and family health nurse. They can assess the child, see if they are reaching expected developmental milestones for their age and lead you in the right direction. They may then be referred to a developmental paediatrician or psychologist where they will do a number of assessments and screening tools to determine the diagnosis. Any information from care givers and preschool teachers are useful too and often they are asked to complete questionnaires about certain behaviours in the child. Some children can be diagnosed from as early as the age of two and others will be diagnosed at an older age. The earlier a child is diagnosed the earlier therapy can begin.
Treatment of ASD
Although there is no cure for autism, research shows that the earlier a child starts intervention the better the developmental outcomes. Children with autism can still learn, make friends, have emotions and can have a positive change in their behaviours. This requires a team based approached and there are financial supports available to help with such interventions. Treatment varies according to the needs of each child and help them to develop their social and communication skills, improve behaviour and development and make the most of their strengths. Treatment programs may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioural therapy, family therapy, special education programs and sometimes medication. Medication is only used if there are significant issues with anxiety, depression, behavioural or sleep. Having a child with autism can have a huge impact on families so support for families is also available.
A child with Autism Spectrum Disorder has difficulties with communication, socialising and play.
No two children with ASD show the same symptoms and signs – they are unique.
Children with ASD like routine and predictability
Treatment is tailored to the child’s and family’s needs and usually includes a team based approach.
Vaccinations do not cause autism.
If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour please see your doctor.
For more information
Author – Dr Georgia Page