Autism Spectrum Disorders

Always see a doctor if you're concerned about any aspects of your health or wellbeing while pregnant.
Always see a doctor if you're concerned about any aspects of your health or wellbeing while pregnant. 

What are they?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term that refers to a range of development disorders that impact on a child’s communication and social skills. The most common forms are autism and Asperger syndrome.

The effect that ASD has on each child will vary, depending on where they individually sit on the spectrum; whether they are diagnosed as mild, severe or somewhere in between. Approximately three-quarters of children with ASD have some form of intellectual disability, however another ten percent of the children display above-average intelligence, sometimes in a specific area such as maths, art or music.

In all instances though, your child will face some degree of difficulty in interacting socially with others.

Are they common?

Diagnosis of ASD needs to be made by at least two health professionals.

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders have been increasing over the past generation and according to the Australian Psychological Society, research indicates that at least 1 in 160 children are affected by ASD. As such, it is quite common in Australia. Approximately eighty percent of children diagnosed with ASD are boys. 

What are the causes?

There is no one cause of ASD and it is an area of ongoing research. It is most certainly not a learned or acquired disorder; it is a definite biological condition. There appears to be a strong genetic or hereditary link, caused perhaps by the combination and interaction of certain genes, and research has indicated that the brain development of children with ASD is different to the standard.

There is no conclusive evidence of an environmental link, although one theory is that if a child is already genetically primed towards ASD, the condition could possibly be triggered by external factors such as a viral infection or exposure to certain toxins. Many large research studies have clearly shown that there is no link between immunisation and autism.

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What are the symptoms?

While children will all display different symptoms, depending on where they sit on the spectrum, there are three common areas of functioning:

Interaction with others - Many children with autism do not seem to have a need for social interaction and quite often prefer to be alone. They do not have a natural understanding of how to act in a particular situation and may be quite unaware of other people’s feelings.

Children with Asperger Syndrome are more likely to desire friendship and may have a higher awareness of their difficulty in making friends, which is something that can distress them.

In both instances, the child will have difficulty in understanding non-verbal interactions (such as facial expressions and other body language). They will often not understand the subtleties of verbal language either; for example they may not recognize sarcasm or humour and may take everything that is said quite literally.

Communication with others - In addition to their difficulty in reading body and verbal language in others, children with autism often have a marked difficulty in using language to express themselves to others. Many children with autism may not learn how to talk at all, or may simply parrot the speech of others. Often they do not use body language (such as smiling, making eye contact or gesturing) appropriately.

On the other hand, children with Asperger syndrome are usually more adept at communicating with others and over time can learn to read the verbal and non-verbal cues they are given. They may talk a great deal about subjects that they are interested in (without understanding that others aren’t quite so interested!)

Interests and behaviours - Children with autism often have many challenging behaviours. They can have heightened senses in terms of smells, touch, colours and tastes and refuse to cooperate if they feel that something is not right. Having routines can help them to feel secure and as such they can be a very important part of their life. They can become extremely – and sometimes aggressively - distressed if a routine (such as what food is packed in their lunchbox) is changed.

They may also develop an obsessive interest in objects, activities, particular television shows or places, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Children with Asperger syndrome can exhibit similar interests and behaviours, however their communication skills tend to be more advanced (there is often no obvious delay in their development of language or thinking) hence they are able to more easily communicate their needs.

Diagnosis of ASD needs to be made by at least two health professionals.

What are the treatments?

Research shows that the earlier the intervention is offered, the better the outcomes are for children with ASD. Intervention will involve intensive, family-based treatment programs that target all areas of your child's development.

What works for one child and family might not work for another so it is important sometimes to take a trial and error approach to finding the best treatments and interventions for your child.

The Australian Psychological Society produces an excellent booklet (‘A guide to the assessment and treatment of autism spectrum disorder’) that can be downloaded online here.

Other Resources

Australian Psychological Society

Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT)

Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders