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Autistic spectrum disorders

Key points

  • Autistic spectrum disorders are a group of lifelong conditions that affect how your child communicates with and relates to other people and the world around them.
  • The two main conditions are autism and Asperger’s syndrome. People are affected in different ways and symptoms can range from mild to severe.
  • Treatments or therapies focus on developing communication skills and behaviour and aim to improve the quality of life for you and your child.

Autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of lifelong conditions that affect how a person communicates with and relates to other people.

This factsheet is relevant for both parents of children with an ASD and adults who have the condition. However, for simplicity, we will refer to your child throughout.

About autistic spectrum disorders

ASDs are a group of conditions that affect how your child develops. They include autism and Asperger’s syndrome. The word 'spectrum' is used because, although many children share similar difficulties, the way that these affect them can vary. So, your child may have mild symptoms, or they may be more severely affected.

Around one in 100 people have an ASD. Around half of people with an ASD also have a learning disability. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with an ASD than girls.

Generally, children who have an ASD don’t develop the social and language skills that other children of the same age do. As a result, they find it difficult to relate to other people and to build relationships. Children with an ASD may also have unusual, repetitive behaviour and learning disabilities.

Autism

Children with autism have difficulty communicating and interacting with others. They also find it hard to understand what other people are thinking or feeling, or to predict what will happen next. Some children with autism may have a learning disability, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, which affects co-ordination and movement.

Asperger syndrome

Asperger syndrome is a type of autism. Children with Asperger syndrome find it hard to read the signals that other people give, such as facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. This makes communication and interaction difficult and can make children feel anxious and confused. If your child has Asperger syndrome he or she will generally have fewer problems with talking and language than a child with autism. They will generally have average or above average intelligence.

Symptoms of autistic spectrum disorders

If your child has an ASD, he or she will have symptoms that affect the way he or she communicates. Their social skills, interests and behaviour may also be affected. How your child is affected can vary widely. Some children are very mildly affected and need little special support, whereas other children are severely affected and need a lifetime of special support.

You may notice some of the symptoms and behaviour of ASDs when your child is very young. However, sometimes symptoms don’t become obvious until your child experiences new social settings, such as going to school.

Social communication

Children with an ASD don’t develop the usual ways to communicate using speech or non-speech skills that other children of the same age do. Your child may have trouble understanding the meaning of spoken or written language. For example, your child may:

  • not respond to you when you speak to them
  • use words correctly but not really understand what they are saying
  • not make eye contact
  • not understand or use gestures

Your child may take words exactly as they mean – that is, he or she will have a very literal sense of language and won’t be able to understand jokes or sarcasm. He or she may also find it difficult to read body language and facial expressions.

Children with severe autism may not speak at all, but can be helped to communicate in other ways, such as through signing or using pictures.

Social skills

Children with autism often find it hard to recognise or understand what other people are feeling and may have trouble expressing their own feelings. Your child may find it difficult to engage with other people, make friends and get on well with their peers. They may be unable to cope with new situations. For example, if your child has an ASD he or she may:

  • not look for comfort from other people, even when distressed
  • prefer to spend time on his or her own
  • find it difficult to accept simple social rules
  • behave strangely because he or she can’t express how they are feeling

Behaviour and interests

Your child may have problems seeing the world from someone else’s point of view and predicting what someone might do. This makes the world feel unpredictable and your child may cope with this by developing strict routines. He or she may become distressed if these routines aren’t followed or impose those routines on other people.

Children with an ASD may show very little or no interest in play that involves pretending. Instead, they may be more interested in repetitive behaviours, activities and interests.

Other symptoms

Apart from problems that affect your child’s communication, social skills, interests and behaviour, he or she may also be over- or under-sensitive to sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Many children with an ASD also have other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia (difficulty organising thoughts and movements) or dyslexia.

Causes of autistic spectrum disorders

The exact causes of ASDs aren't fully understood at present and they may be caused by a combination of factors. These include the genes inherited from our parents, being born before 35 weeks, and birth defects that affect the development of the nervous system.

Diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders

If you notice your child might be showing signs of an ASD, contact your GP or health visitor.
Your GP will ask about your child’s behaviour and. If your GP thinks your child may have an ASD, he or she may refer you to a specialist or child development centre. Your child may have more tests, interviews and examinations. There are a number of different assessments which can be used to assess your child’s behaviour and how they interact with other people.

You and your child may see a number of different people including a paediatrician, child psychiatrist, speech therapist, occupational therapist and psychologist. This can mean having several appointments over several weeks.

After the assessments you may get a detailed diagnosis report, which should state clearly what the diagnosis is.

Treatment of autistic spectrum disorders

There isn’t a cure for ASDs, however, there are many different ways that your child can be helped to manage. These are called interventions and are treatments or therapies which aim to improve the quality of life for you and your child. The best treatment for your child will depend on how he or she is affected. Individual therapies can be tailored to your child.
Some of the main approaches to managing an ASD are listed below.

  • Making adjustments to the physical environment such as the lighting, amount of noise, colour of walls and personal space available.
  • Alternative communications – this involves teaching your child to communicate using other types of communication apart from speech. They include sign language and Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), where your child is taught to communicate with picture cards.
  • Behaviour therapies. There is a wide range of these programmes, which aim to encourage appropriate behaviour and to discourage inappropriate behaviour. They include Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) which improves skills by rewarding good behaviour.
  • Therapies that help with specific problems, for example speech and language therapy, physiotherapy to improve movement and co-ordination, and occupational therapy to help develop daily living skills.

It’s important to remember that one therapy may work for one child but not for another, as all children have different needs and abilities.

There are hundreds of different interventions available and making a choice about what is best for your child can be difficult. Talk to your specialist for information about the different approaches to managing autism.

Medicines

Medicines can’t treat ASDs as such, but they can help to ease some of the symptoms. Your child’s specialist may prescribe a medicine for him or her to take to reduce symptoms such as agitation, aggression, hyperactive behaviour or sleep problems. Always ask your specialist, GP or pharmacist for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your child’s medicine.

Help and support

Looking after a child with an ASD can be challenging and hard work at times. Health professionals involved in your child's care can provide help and support for you and your child's carers.

For example, respite breaks give you a chance to rest while somebody else looks after your child – these may be provided by social services. Some families are entitled to benefits, such as disability living allowance to help cover the expenses involved in caring for a child with an ASD. You may also find it helpful to get information and support from local autism support groups.

School

If your child has an ASD, he or she is entitled to extra help at school, college and university. Your child can also get help at times of transition, when they move from one school to another. Children with an ASD often need an educational assessment and special support. Your child may go to a special school or, where possible, attend a mainstream school with extra help.

You can find more information about living with an ASD from charities such as the National Autistic Society.

 

Reviewed by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, October 2013.

Find out more about our health editors

 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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