In the old days when a child didn’t develop speech as quickly as his peers or was always sitting alone at playgroup it was dismissed simply as a ‘phase’. Nowadays when this behaviour shows up it seems more and more parents are worrying it’s down to something else.
“We frequently receive calls to our Autism Helpline from parents who are concerned about their child’s development,” says Caroline Hattersley, head of information, advice and advocacy at the National Autistic Society (NAS).
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects children from birth or the early months of life. It results in a delay in – and deviance from – the normal patterns of development and stops children interacting ‘normally’ with others. But as with all conditions that could affect your children, it’s important to arm yourself with the facts before you start to worry.
Spotting the signs of autism
“Children with autism share three key areas of difficulties: social communication, social interaction and social imagination,” says Caroline Hattersley, from the National Autistic Society (NAS). “A child must display difficulties in all three of these areas to be diagnosed with autism.”
The most common signs range from a lack of eye contact, difficulty communicating (which may include delayed speech), lining up or spinning objects and toys, to hand-flapping and difficulty socialising.
“If a child is developing slowly in one area – such as social interaction – he or she may well just be shy,” says Dr Amitta Shah, consultant clinician at the NAS Lorna Wing Centre for Autism. “But even the most introvert child will show some interest in their peers even if they don’t necessarily want to join in. It’s important to consider the child’s behaviour in a range of settings to obtain a full picture before making a diagnosis.”
“And of course, it’s important to remember that if your child displays any of the key characteristics, it’s only an indication that there may be a problem,” says Caroline. “After all, children are all different and develop at their own pace.”
5 key indicators of autism
- No uttering of any babbling sounds by 12 months
- No gesturing (pointing, waving, bye-bye, etc.) by 12 months
- No uttering of any single words by 16 months
- Not using any two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months (not just repeated phrases)
- Any loss of language or social skills at any age
The minimum age for diagnosis is currently 2 years old. If you have suspicions before then, your doctor will take them seriously but your child will just be monitored. In a lot of cases, children aren’t diagnosed until they’re even older than 2.
“Diagnosis is often only possible in clear-cut cases,” says Dr Amitta Shah, consultant clinician at the NAS Lorna Wing Centre for Autism. “It’s not just based on one feature, it’s a combination of characteristics.” There is no single test that can be done to reach a diagnosis.
Instead, doctors observe and ask questions to get a broad view of the individual and then make a diagnosis of autism. The Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) can give medics a clearer idea of whether a child might be autistic by using a parent’s answers to 15 questions to judge how the child’s behaviour differs from an age-appropriate norm. It also distinguishes the degree of autism. A second scale, called the Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disorders (DISCO) is also often used.
There are more than 500,000 people with autism in the UK – that’s one in 100. Roughly three times as many boys are affected as girls .
Getting help with autism
Your first port of call if you’re worried your child could be affected should be your health visitor or GP. Don’t feel silly approaching them with your concerns as they’re there to help. “If a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, there are many support services in place to get help,” says Dr Amitta Shah, from the NAS Lorna Wing Centre for Autism.
“A young child will probably be referred to a speech and language therapist and would also benefit from a referral to a clinical psychologist.” Remember, if your child’s under 2, you won’t get a diagnosis straight away.
However, the earlier a diagnosis can be made, the sooner specialist support can be put in place, adds Caroline Hattersley, from the National Autistic Society (NAS). “Autism is a lifelong condition,” she says, “but the right support at the right time can make a huge difference, and the good news for parents is that there is help available once you know where to look.”
The NAS is the UK’s leading charity for people affected by autism. It has info on what to do if you suspect your child has autism and lists of local support groups and services across the UK. You can also call the NAS Autism Helpine on 0845 070 4004, Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm.
One mum’s experience of autism
Kristina, 31, is mum to Georgia, 4, and Charlie, 2. When Georgia was diagnosed with autism at just 2, mum Kristina was devastated.
“We first became worried about Georgia when she was 8 months old. She never responded when we called her name, and, as the months passed, we waited in vain for her first word. Then, just before she was 2, tests confirmed she had glue ear and grommets were fitted. But still she didn’t start to speak. I noticed other worrying things. At toddler group, she didn’t play with the other children, preferring to sit alone and turn the pages of a book over for hours. She never waved or pointed and rarely made eye contact.
“I told the health visitor my worries and from there, we were referred to the community paediatrician and eventually to a speech and language therapist. After running some tests, she told me she thought Georgia might be autistic. I was stunned. I looked up autism on the internet and found a list of characteristics that fitted Georgia perfectly.
“Finally, when she was 2 years and 10 months old, Georgia was confirmed as having autism spectrum disorder. At first, I was upset and worried about the future. But with help from a range of specialists and the support of the National Autistic Society, I’ve learnt to take each day as it comes. Georgia’s even starting mainstream school in September, where she’ll get one-to-one help. She still can’t speak but we communicate using PECS, or Picture Exchange Communication System, where she uses pictures to explain what she wants. All in all, she’s a very happy little girl and that’s the most important thing in the world to me. ”
MMR and autism
Back in 1998, the combined MMR vaccine became the subject of controversy after Dr Andrew Wakefield published a paper linking it to the development of autism. In May 2010, Dr Wakefield was found by the General Medical Council to have acted irresponsibly and was struck off the medical register. Subsequent studies have failed to find any link between the vaccine and autism.