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Word On Autism

Our grateful thanks to the National Autistic Society for their contribution to our on-air report which you can hear again further down this page. We'd also like to thank NHS Choices for the use of the information below. At the bottom of this page, you will find hyperlinks to organisations offering more detailed information, help and support. 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. In children with ASD, the symptoms are present before three years of age, although a diagnosis can sometimes be made after the age of three.

Incidence It's estimated that about 1 in every 100 people in the UK has ASD. More boys are diagnosed with the condition than girls. There's no "cure" for ASD, but speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational support, plus a number of other interventions are available to help children and parents.

What causes ASD?  The exact cause of ASD is unknown, but it's thought that several complex genetic and environmental factors are involved. In the past, some people believed the MMR vaccine caused ASD, but this has been investigated extensively in a number of major studies around the world, involving millions of children, and researchers have found no evidence of a link between MMR and ASD.

Signs and symptoms  People with ASD tend to have problems with social interaction and communication. In early infancy, some children with ASD don’t babble or use other vocal sounds. Older children have problems using non-verbal behaviours to interact with others – for example, they have difficulty with eye contact, facial expressions, body language and gestures. They may give no or brief eye contact and ignore familiar or unfamiliar people.

Children with ASD may also lack awareness of and interest in other children. They’ll often either gravitate to older or younger children, rather than interacting with children of the same age. They tend to play alone.

They can find it hard to understand other people's emotions and feelings and have difficulty starting conversations or taking part in them properly. Language development may be delayed, and a child with ASD won’t compensate their lack of language or delayed language skills by using gestures (body language) or facial expressions.

Children with ASD will tend to repeat words or phrases spoken by others (either immediately or later) without formulating their own language, or in parallel to developing their language skills. Some children don’t demonstrate imaginative, or pretend play, while others will continually repeat the same pretend play.

Some children with ASD like to stick to the same routine and little changes may trigger tantrums. Some children may flap their hand or twist or flick their fingers when they’re excited or upset. Others may engage in a repetitive activity, such as turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors, or lining things up.

Children and young people with ASD frequently experience a range of cognitive (thinking), learning, emotional and behavioural problems. For example, they may also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression.

About 70% of children with ASD have a non-verbal IQ below 70. Of these, 50% have a non-verbal IQ below 50. Overall, up to 50% of people with "severe learning difficulties" have an ASD.

Signs of ASD in pre-school children

Spoken language

•delayed speech development (for example, speaking less than 50 different words by the age of two), or not speaking at all 

•frequent repetition of set words and phrases 

•speech that sounds very monotonous or flat 

•preferring to communicate using single words, despite being able to speak in sentences 

Responding to others

•not responding to their name being called, despite having normal hearing 

•rejecting cuddles initiated by a parent or carer (although they may initiate cuddles themselves) 

•reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else 

Interacting with others

•not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space 

•little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age 

•not enjoying situations that most children of their age like, such as birthday parties 

•preferring to play alone, rather than asking others to play with them 

•rarely using gestures or facial expressions when communicating 

•avoiding eye contact 

Behaviour

•having repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, or flicking their fingers 

•playing with toys in a repetitive and unimaginative way, such as lining blocks up in order of size or colour, rather than using them to build something 

•preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to this routine 

•having a strong like or dislike of certain foods based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste 

•unusual sensory interests – for example, children with ASD may sniff toys, objects or people inappropriately  

Signs and symptoms of ASD in school-age children

Spoken language

•preferring to avoid using spoken language 

•speech that sounds very monotonous or flat 

•speaking in pre-learned phrases, rather than putting together individual words to form new sentences 

•seeming to talk "at" people, rather than sharing a two-way conversation 

Responding to others

•taking people’s speech literally and being unable to understand sarcasm, metaphors or figures of speech 

•reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else 

Interacting with others

•not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space 

•little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age, or having few close friends, despite attempts to form friendships 

•not understanding how people normally interact socially, such as greeting people or wishing them farewell 

•being unable to adapt the tone and content of their speech to different social situations – for example, speaking very formally at a party and then speaking to total strangers in a familiar way 

•not enjoying situations and activities that most children of their age enjoy 

•rarely using gestures or facial expressions when communicating 

•avoiding eye contact 

Behaviour

•repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, or flicking their fingers 

•playing in a repetitive and unimaginative way, often preferring to play with objects rather than people 

•developing a highly specific interest in a particular subject or activity 

•preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to their normal routine 

•having a strong like or dislike of certain foods based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste 

•unusual sensory interests – for example, children with ASD may sniff toys, objects or people inappropriately 

Getting a diagnosis  The main features of ASD – problems with social communication and interaction – can often be recognised during early childhood. Some features of ASD may not become noticeable until a change of situation, such as when the child starts nursery or school. 

See your GP or health visitor if you notice any of the signs and symptoms of ASD in your child, or if you're concerned about your child's development. It can also be helpful to discuss your concerns with your child's nursery or school.

Caring for someone with ASD  Being a carer isn't an easy role. When you're busy responding to the needs of others, it can affect your emotional and physical energy, and make it easy to forget your own health and mental wellbeing. 

If you're caring for someone else, it's important to look after yourself and get as much help as possible. It's in your best interests and those of the person you care for.  You can also call the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.

Autism in adults  Some people with ASD had features of the condition as a child, but enter adulthood without ever being diagnosed.  However, getting a diagnosis as an adult can often help a person with ASD and their families understand the condition and work out what type of advice and support they need.  For example, a number of autism-specific services are available that provide adults with ASD with the help and support they need to live independently and find a job that matches their skills and abilities.

For further information, help and support

National Autistic Society

Ambitious About Autism 

Autism Plus 

Research Autism 

NHS Choices

Listen to this weeks radio report

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.