It wasn't until we met some new friends who advised their daughter had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that I started noticing some similarities to our son Bailey, who was 3 at the time. We knew at that stage something wasn't quite right with Bailey but had no idea exactly what his problem was. We had been going to the GP, a Paediatrician and a few Psychologist visits for a few months before we met our new friends. We had been told that some of his mannerisms could simply be related to his young age and to wait some more time before getting too concerned.
It wasn't until I was reading an article in a parenting magazine shortly after meeting them that I knew for sure that Bailey was Autistic. The article was on ASD and how to know if your child may fall under the characteristics of the disorder. Almost every point on the checklist had been ticked, perhaps 35 out of 40 from memory. I showed my husband the article and checklist, almost relieved that we finally had an answer.
Sadly, I no longer have a copy of the article and I sometimes find it hard to explain to people what Autism is. You see, ASD shows itself very differently within each child. Some children seem to be affected more in one area than another. Unfortunately some children seem to be greatly affected in all areas.
ASD can be best explained as a complex, lifelong, neurological disorder (meaning brain related disorder). ASD encompasses a number of conditions including Autistic disorder, Aspergers syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
To you or I most people with ASD look like everyone else. However they experience issues in three core areas.
- Problems in communication with others
- Problems interacting in social situations
- Repetitive and/or restrictive behaviours
An example of how these may manifest in an Autistic child are:
- The child may have a noticeable speech delay or difficulties with their speech. They may express their speech by way of echolalia (eg: repeating back the same thing just spoken to them, parroting).
- May be able to talk well but find it difficult to hold an intelligible conversation on topics that are not of direct interest to them (eg: Hello, how are you? What have you done today? Child: I have a train called Thomas. Thomas is blue and has a number one on him.)
- Can experience stress in medium to large settings such as a classroom, shopping centre, fairs and fetes, playground or birthday party. (eg: Might cry or cling to parent when stressed and not know how to include themselves in a normally fun activity. Similar to a how toddler might act but this can still occur for school aged affected children and beyond.)
- May only eat certain foods (eg: preferring a certain colour or consistency), continually move their body in an odd way (eg: flap arms, flick fingers, head bang, rock their body), may be affected by sounds, smells, tastes in an odd way (eg: be very scared of a hand dryer for fear of setting off the loud noise, scared of vacuum cleaner because of noise, be very repulsed by toilet smells, etc)
- May have an obsession for items that continue over the years (beyond what is expected at certain age levels), such as trains, cars, robots, etc (eg: Taking a toy train everywhere they go and feels the need to play with trains on a daily basis and watch train movies most days. They may know every word from their favourite Thomas DVD and use that exact dialogue when playing with their trains).
- They may make repetitive sounds such as droning (similar to a noise when playing with a car but will still make that sound without a car), humming or softly singing the same tune over and over again or repeating the same sentence.
- May not know how to respond naturally in a social situation even with those they know very well. (eg: not giving grandparents a hug or kiss when greeting and perhaps not even saying Hello at all.)
- They may prefer to play alone on most occassions and seem disgruntled when another child or adult interrupts their play sequence. When they do play with other children they may try to control the play so they know what is expected of them (eg: Child: you take this car and make it go round the track whilst I take my car and drive it back and forth. Child: No, don't bring it over here near my car, just put it on the track and go round and round).
- They may be extremely intelligent and have an excellent memory, especially for numbers, places and facts of interest to them (eg: they might know hundreds of dinosaur names and be able to tell you what years they lived on Earth or count to 100 at the age of three without any extreme coaching). They often struggle remembering people's faces and names however. This may be because they find it difficult to bond or form a relationship with most people. Some children greatly affected with ASD may have no bond with anyone, even their own parents.
- They can often lack eye contact and are unable/find it hard to read social cues. (eg: they may not understand that a person wants to end the conversation or is annoyed with them).
- They find it difficult understanding emotions and feelings of both themselves and others. This may mean they could find it difficult to make a decision as they are unsure if something is going to make them happy or sad. (eg: They might have hurt another person physically or emotionally but are unable to interpret their need to apologise. If they do apologise without being prompted it may appear to be done without any real empathy for the person)
- In some extreme cases the child may have a low IQ and appear quite slow and 'lost' in their own world. They may not have any real knowledge of the world around them and seem quite happy just walking around in a zombie like trance. They may find it very difficult with toilet training, learning to write and talk.
- The child may love to spin and show no real signs of spatial displacement (dizziness). They may walk quite often on their toes which can cause physical issues after some time.
- They may find it difficult to use a pencil or crayon to write and draw quite immaturely for their age (eg: still be scribbling without any real use of stick people, flowers, suns, skies, houses etc by the age of 4).
- They may enjoy keeping things clean and tidy. They may appear almost obsessive keeping their hands clean or their environment very well organised. (eg: they may dislike getting glue or paint on their hands, wash their hands regularly, get quite upset when someone puts an item back in the 'wrong' place, use the vacuum or broom freely and willingly on a regular basis)
- They may not have any real friends or ask for playdates or sleepovers at their home or others. They might appear to be a 'loner'.
Never distrust your parents' instinct. Never listen to family or friends if they tell you it's normal not to be talking by age 3 or normal to seem vague and 'lost' in their own world without any real feelings or emotions towards their loved ones. These things are NOT normal and the longer real issues are left without seeking help the harder it will make things for your child in the long run. Don't be alarmed though if your child seems to be developing normally and does a few of the things listed above. Some of these things are quite typical for children aged 1-3 anyway.
I feel the more I make people aware of what Autism is, the better understood Bailey might be growing up. I'll also feel happier if I can assist the parents of other potential ASD children to help their child within the best window of opportunity for change (age 2-5). ASD can never be cured but when diagnosed accurately the child can learn and develop with the right supports, to reach their own full potential.
Until next time,