AUTISM spectrum disorder is a condition which can affect a person's communication skills and their ability to socialise.
It affects about one per cent of the population, but how can you tell if your child might be showing signs of autism?
Here's all you need to know about people with ASD, the signs and symptoms and what support is available in the UK.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an incurable, lifelong developmental condition that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
It affects around one in 100 people in the UK and is three to four times more common in boys than in girls.
Many people with ASD find it hard to understand other people's feelings and emotions, and they may have difficulty holding conversations.
When they are young, their language development may take longer and they can struggle to use facial expressions, using gestures to communicate instead.
They may also find it hard to connect with other people and to hold eye contact with unfamiliar individuals.
Many children with ASD like to follow a routine, and changes to this can cause distress.
High functioning autism is an informal term some people use to describe those on the autism spectrum disorder.
What does it mean to be on the autistic spectrum?
No two people with autism spectrum disorder have the exact same set of symptoms, and it is referred to as a spectrum because of the variety of its signs and symptoms, and their differences in severity.
Some people with ASD experience symptoms that make daily life difficult.
Others who are considered “high-functioning” may simply feel like something is “different” about them.
They might have felt that way since childhood but haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why.
Similarly, they may not notice that they feel or behave differently, but others around them may notice that they behave or act differently.
While autism is most often diagnosed in toddlers, it’s possible for adults with autism spectrum disorder to go undiagnosed.
What are the signs and symptoms of ASD?
The NHS outlines the signs of symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in school-age children.
- 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
- 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
What causes autism?
The exact cause is unknown, but can occur as a result of a number of genetic, environmental and unknown factors.
Many scientists think that a child inherits certain genes that make them more susceptible to ASD from their parents.
Other researchers claim these genes are only triggered if they are exposed to certain environmental factors.
Some of the possible causes are thought to be being born prematurely before 35 weeks of pregnancy and being exposed to alcohol in the womb.
Other theories include defects in the sensory nerves being the cause.
In the past, some have thought flu during pregnancy to be a cause, but this has been disproved in one study.
Other studies claim that children born to mums with allergies are more at risk of autism and ADHD.
And scientists in Denmark have found that the later you leave it to have kids, the higher the chance your baby will be diagnosed with this condition.
How can you test for autism spectrum disorder?
Currently autism diagnoses are not made until children are about five years old and symptoms are normally picked up when a child reaches three.
There are no tests that are used to screen for ASD during pregnancy.
Symptoms are usually present before a child reaches the age of three, although a diagnosis can be made later in life.
To make an accurate assessment, information is usually drawn from GPs, nursery or school staff and speech and occupational therapists.
Physical examinations are often carried out in order to rule out other potential causes of the symptoms.
These health implications may also be triggered by underlying conditions including Down's syndrome or neurofibromatosis.
Is there a cure for autism spectrum disorder?
There isn’t a cure for autism, but there are a number of ways you can support those with it.
Speech and language therapists and educational support staff can help children and parents with day-to-day life.
Depending on the individual, there are a number of treatments for symptoms or conditions associated with ASD, such as ADHD and sleeping problems.
In March, 2019, around 150 therapists who claim so-called Cease therapy can “cure” autism were served notices by the UK’s advertising watchdog.
Cease, which stands for Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression, therapy has no scientific credibility, according to The Advertising Standards Authority.
The therapy involves the removal of so-called “toxic imprints” allegedly caused by vaccines, medications and other substances.
In March 2019 we reported that Amazon is selling dubious autism "cure" books and manuals – some of which prescribe dangerous bleach-based remedies for kids.
A quick search for "autism cures" in the selling site's search engine brings up hundreds of bizarre titles.
A new investigation by Wired has found that Amazon is allowing pseudoscientific books recommending parents put their kids through harmful "treatments" including drinking, bathing in or enemas out of bleach-like substances.
We found that one title, Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism, was still being sold by two booksellers for £38.62 but after contacting Amazon, found that they'd been removed.
When is Autism Awareness Day?
World Autism Awareness Day is on April 2 every year, and aims to raise awareness and acceptance of people with autism worldwide.
It is observed by the member states of the United Nations, and began in 2007.
The day is part of World Autism Awareness Week which runs from April 1-7 in 2019.
There are plenty of fundraisers across the UK including Spectrum Night Walks in London, Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff on Saturday, April 6, at 8pm.
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