What is Autism? Well, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and autism are terms for a group of very complex disorders regarding cognitive development, behavioral disorders, social disorders, and more. They vary in degree, from high functioning children who have behaviors but can function, to low functioning, who will need more help throughout their lives.
It can be associated with motor problems and problems with coordination, intellectual problems, and physical health problems such as difficulties sleeping and stomach problems. Some, but not all, children who have autism are 'savants', and they excel in some visual skills, music, math, and/or arts.
Autism seems to begin with very early brain development. The most obvious signs of it seem to emerge around ages 2 to 3, but some signs can be spotted by 18 months of age. Statistics show that autism in the US affects around 1 in 68 children, an increase by ten in the last 40 years. It is estimated that 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the US.
No one knows, even still, what exactly causes autism. However, research is beginning to show us some answers. For example, research shows that there is more than one kind of autism, and more than one cause of it. Most cases, however, seem to be caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors that influence early development.
A growing amount of research shows that a woman can help reduce the risk of her child having autism by taking or having a diet rich in folic acid, at least 600 mcg of it per day, both before and after conception.
The question is, though, what are the warning signs? Well, we've comprised a list of 10 signs to look out for if you suspect your child has autism.
10 Avoiding Eye Contact
Where it was once thought to be purely a social thing, new research is showing that this may be in due to how they process visual information. What the study showed, was that at peripheral locations in the brain, children with autism had larger responses in the cortex. This response did not occur in neurotypical children. This new finding suggests that kids with autism have a basic, core difference in how their visual cortex is mapped out.
So they're not just being rude or just socially awkward when they refuse to meet your gaze… their brains are wired differently. One autistic savant said that for her, it feels unnatural and that it's hard for her to gauge how long she needs to hold eye contact with someone.
All of these concerns trigger a sensory overload, making it hard to focus on the actual conversation at hand. So, to be able to hold a conversation, she cannot make eye contact. And it's like this for other children with autism as well. A little understanding can go a long way.
9 Routine Changes Are Chaos
Children who have autism thrive in a structured environment. Being consistent in a routine helps these children to know what is going to happen during the day, and what to expect. If there's a change in the routine, a child with autism may tantrum and become aggressive, and may withdraw from others. Why? Because changing the routine in a child with autism causes them extreme anxiety.
You can help make change easier for a child who has autism. Daily visual schedules can be really helpful, so they can see what is going to happen. Finding different ways to encourage flexibility are also very important. And if at all possible, go through a practice run, to help the child experience what they will be doing for the main event. And above all else, always give yourself extra time to do what you need to do.
The term stimming is actually short for self-stimulatory behaviors, also called a stereotypic behavior. This can include rocking, flapping their hands, spinning in circles, or repeating words, phrases, and sounds. It's almost always a symptom of autism, specifically the flapping of hands or rocking, but keep in mind that people also do this in their day to day life.
If you've ever bitten your nails or twirled your hair out of habit, it's stimming. Children with autism stim to help manage anxiety, anger, fear, and other emotions and senses that they are overwhelmed with.
Lessening stimming is tricky and difficult, but there are approaches that some have found success with, such as occupational therapy. In some cases, medication can be used to address the anxiety that often brings on stimming. And some people can learn to change their stims with practice and coaching.
7 Poor Social Skills
I'll bet you're not aware of your own ability to process social cues in a fast manner, figure out people's intentions, or even to choose your responses. I'll also bet you can't really picture what it would be like to live without this ability. It's not like pretending to be blind or deaf, you can, at least, put yourself in those shoes to a degree, but it's far more complex to put yourself in the shoes of social disability.
Children with autism have to learn social rules that we already know. They have to work at even understanding emotions, not only in themselves, but in others as well. And even this understanding does not help them to know what to do when they feel empathetic, jealous, angry, or embarrassed. And imagine that it just gets more and more complex with every single year.
Therapy can sometimes help, and there are in fact many kinds of therapy and techniques. There is the Hidden Curriculum strategy, which teaches unspoken social rules. There are Social Scripts, which involves teaching a 'script' for social situations. And there are always interventions that use technology such as videos and other software to teach a child to role play, view themselves performing a social task, and more.
6 Sensitivity To Senses
Children with autism process sensory things differently than neurotypical children. And by this, I mean they may interpret tastes differently, or sounds, touch, visually, or even smells. Loud noises and bright lights can be overwhelming and triggering to them… or, alternatively, they can be drawn to them. Strong smells, glittery lights, heavy and strong touch, loud noises, and stuff that have distinct tastes can either draw a child with autism to them or make them overwhelmed.
If you see a child having a meltdown or refusing to respond, never judge them for it. You can help them. Small changes to an environment can make all the difference to a child with autism, and especially to their children. Even if you cannot change anything, just being understanding and supportive can mean the world to a child with autism and their families.
5 Delayed Or No Speech
Many children with autism develop some kind of speech or language disorder, and any progress they make is often lopsided and not even. They may develop a strong vocabulary for something that interests them quickly. Sometimes they may not even respond when others are speaking to them, and they may not even respond to their own names. Because of all of this, people often mistake children with autism as having hearing problems. Some children with autism may even be non-verbal.
The best thing you can do for a child who has autism is to be understanding. That said, teaching children with autism how to communicate is necessary for helping them to be the best that they can be. Speech therapy can be a big help, but it will not be a miracle cure all. It will take time and patience to see an improvement in speech, but it will be worth it.
Many people mistake the fact that some children with autism have problems with empathy, into them not having feelings. Actually, what is misunderstood is the definition of the word empathy. Empathy is, to put it simply, being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes, look at them, see what they are feeling, and then to feel it yourself. And the trouble generally is that they have trouble figuring out just what we are thinking and reading our body language.
Children with autism feel so strongly and have so much empathy, that they cannot watch movies sometimes. They feel so strongly about the characters and their issues that they feel the pain as if it's their own, making watching the show or movie painful to them. Empathy levels can vary along the spectrum, but the thought that children with autism have no empathy is a complete myth.
3 Do Not Point At What They Want
One of the earliest signs of autism, an infant or toddler that does not point to things to ask for them or pointing to get their attention, is one of the warning signs of autism. While late speech is a sign that may leave you worried, it's not always a sign of autism. The inability to communicate is more worrying than how they communicate. After all, a child can be deaf or be medically unable to speak, and not have autism.
If you notice your child is not communicating and, this is key, using the words they know to communicate, then it's time to speak to the doctor about it. If your child simply has a speech delay, though, it can be a sign of hearing issues, childhood apraxia of speech, and more. Either way, it may be a good idea to speak to the doctor.
2 Prefer To Play Alone
Because autism affects a child's social skills, children with autism often tend to play alone, and when they play, it's not what most would deem as 'typical'. For example, they may line up toys in lines instead of playing with them. Due to their lack of social skills children with autism may not engage in parallel play, preferring to be by themselves when they play.
Helping children learn to play with others can be one of the biggest things you can do. You can take them to a park and allow them to interact with others, at their own comfort level of course. You can also play with them to demonstrate how to interact with certain toys, play tea party, etc.
1 Do Not Respond To Their Name
Babies at one year old who do not respond when their name is called are more likely to be diagnosed with autism or other developmental disorders at age 2, which, according to researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, makes this simple task a potential early indicator for these conditions. Most children who failed to respond to their names at one year old had autism, or other developmental, behavioral, and social delays, according to their studies.
The goal with children with autism is to intervene as early as possible, since early intervention can mean better outcomes for kids with autism. If you see this trait in your child, then it's a good time for you speak to your doctor and find out what they think.
Each child with autism is unique, special, and deserves respect. Many take much deserved pride in their abilities that they have and their atypical ways of seeing the world around them. Around 25% of people with ASD are in fact nonverbal, but they often find other ways to communicate.
Autism Speaks is an organization that seeks to help families of children with autism. They offer the 100 day kit, which they give out free to parents who have children who have been diagnosed in the last 6 months, and other tool kits to help parents help their children.
It's a great resource for parents who are overwhelmed and need help. Also, reach out to local therapy centers, there are often centers that focus on pediatric therapies and are more than happy to help with resources, and sometimes even advice.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and it's a great time to get involved in the autism community and promote awareness, inclusion, and to promote that each person with autism is given the opportunity to have the best possible quality of life.
It's time to do more than promote awareness… it's time to promote acceptance. These children deserve respect too, and there are tens of thousands of people, adults and children, facing an autism diagnosis every single year. Let's help give these people a brighter future.
Look into your local area groups to find out if there are any groups doing awareness walks, activities, and more. My local area is doing an Autism Awareness 5k. All proceeds go to local autism resource groups. Lots of places are doing the same kinds of things. Check it out, and if you can, donate, and help make a difference in the life of someone who has ASD today.