This article covers
- What is Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD?
- Causes of ASD
- The signs of ASD
- Managing ASD
- List of useful resources
- How can Mindsum help?
What is ASD?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects social interaction, communication and behaviour. It is referred to as a spectrum condition because it affects each person differently.
ASD is not an illness. It is a life-long condition that affects the way people see and interact with the world.
Not all children and young people with ASD suffer from mental health issues, although it is very common. Children and young people with ASD can have mental and behavioural issues such as anxiety, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning difficulties. It is important to support children and young people with ASD in managing the condition and preventing these mental health problems.
Causes of ASD
The specific cause of ASD is not known. It is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Here are some factors that are associated with ASD:
- Boys are 3-4 times more likely to be affected by ASD than girls
- Genetics (e.g. sibling with ASD)
- Parent with psychosis, schizophrenia or affective disorder
- Birth defects
- Premature birth
- Use of sodium valproate during pregnancy
- Existing learning difficulties
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Other genetic conditions (e.g. muscle dystrophy, down’s syndrome, fragile X syndrome)
The signs of ASD
The signs of ASD are usually there before the age of 3 years old. This includes difficulties in social interaction, communication and repetitive and restrictive behaviours. These difficulties cause challenges in the everyday life of the child or young person. For example, people with ASD generally have a hard time understanding and knowing how to react in the social world. Difficulties with social interaction or communication can include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an aeroplane flying over)
- not look at objects when another person points at them
- Not able to pretend play
- Taking things literally
- Rarely using spoken language
- Talking at people, rather than engaging in a back and forth conversation
- Taking a long time to process information
- A hard time understanding sarcasm
- Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings and intentions
- Discomfort with physical touch
- Appearing by others to behave strangely or not appropriate for the situation (e.g. smiling at someone crying)
- Lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using)
The world is full of unwritten rules and can make it unpredictable and confusing for people with ASD. For this reason, they often prefer to do things the same way. Repetitive and restrictive behaviours can include:
- Preferring the same clothes, food or travel to school
- Repeating movements (e.g. hand flapping, rocking)
- Repeat or echo words or phrases said to them
- Repeating actions (e.g. opening and closing door, turning TV on and off)
- Feeling stressed out or anxious when there is a change in routine
- Having an intense interest in a particular topic from a young age
- Having a sensitivity to loud noises, lights, taste or touch
It is common for people with ASD to feel extremely anxious and overwhelmed, especially in social situations and when things change. They can easily shutdown or go into a meltdown when things become too much. In this case, the child or young person might lose control, scream, shout, cry or get extremely quiet and switch off. It is important to support children and young people with ASD, so that they are able to develop ways of coping and prevent serious problems in mental health.
“Andy is a 6-year-old boy. He has been diagnosed with ASD since he was 3 years old. Before he was diagnosed, his mother was concerned when he did not engage with her. Whenever she tried to play with him, he always avoided her eyes and looked straight at the wall. Now, Andy enjoys maths lessons at school, but often he feels extremely overwhelmed when other pupils talk loud in class. He has difficulties playing with others and prefers to sit alone. Andy’s parents consult a specialist regularly to continue to learn the best ways to support him.”
There is no cure for ASD. It is a life-long condition that needs to be managed. There are many interventions for ASD, depending on how severely ASD affects the child or young person. This includes psychological, behavioural and educational programmes. These interventions are usually tailored to the specific needs of the child or young person. All interventions focus on:
- Reducing impairments caused by ASD (e.g. in attention, concentration, engagement)
- Improve functioning (e.g. ability to take the school bus alone, making friends)
- Reducing behaviours that cause problems in everyday life (e.g. meltdowns, aggression when stressed out)
These are examples of the common interventions used to manage ASD:
Therapy or counselling will focus on helping the child or young person cope with the difficult feelings such as anxiety, that is common in children and young people with ASD. Therapy might include Cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps to understand how feelings, thoughts and behaviours work and teaches specific skills to manage these.
Applied behavioural analysis (ABA)
ABA is a specialised group of interventions that focuses on encouraging helpful behaviours and reducing harmful ones. This is commonly used with children or young people that have ASD, especially in the early years. ABA helps children and young people learn to use language and communication skills. It also focuses on improving attention and positive behaviours. This intervention uses reward systems that encourages the child to keep up helpful behaviours.
Social skills training
Social skills training teaches the child or young person how to interact with others and manage in the social world. This can include role-modelling, learning conversational skills and problem-solving skills.
Parent/carer training programmes
This programme helps to support parents in understanding ASD and learning new skills that will help the child succeed in their everyday life. This can include communication skills, positive reinforcement skills and play activities between the parent and child.
There are other helpful habits that can make a difference in the child’s everyday life. This can include:
- Using the child’s name, so that they know they are being spoken to
- Reading available online forums on autism and communication skills
- Keeping language clear and simple
- Using gestures or images to make it easier to understand what you are saying
- Making sure your child has a regular bedtime
- Connecting with other parents of children with ASD on local support groups
Medication is not prescribed for ASD. It is only considered if there are behaviours linked to ASD, that are too severe to treat with other interventions.
You can get more information about ASD on the NHS website. Click here to access the link. The NHS also offers a platform with access to autism support groups. Click here to access the link.
National Autistic Society
National Autistic Society has a vast collection of information on ASD. Click here to access the link.
Ambitious about autism
Ambitious about autism also offers more information and resources on ASD in children and young people. Click here to access the link.