Autism: The signs, symptoms and the condition explained

It’s Autism Awareness Week [Photo: Getty]
It’s Autism Awareness Week [Photo: Getty]

This week, the first week in April 2019, people all over the UK will be marking Autism Awareness Week.

The fundraising event set up by the National Autistic Society (NAS) aims to raise awareness of the condition and encourage people to donate to fund campaigns that help those with autism.

Some famous faces with autism include TV presenter Chris Packham, actors Daryl Hannah and Dan Akroyd, and musician Gary Numan.

Last year, ‘The Chase’ star Anne Hegerty garnered widespread support after she spoke openly about being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, while taking part in ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here’

Despite affecting over 1 in 100 people in the UK, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding autism, from how it is treated to who is most at risk, so in honour of Autism Awareness Week, which aims to increase acceptance and understanding, here’s everything you need to know about the condition…

What is autism?

According to the NHS, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. This can mean they see, hear and feel the world differently to others.

Autism is on a spectrum, meaning the condition will affect individuals in different ways. Some autistic people, for example, also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions.

As there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, autism is far more common than many people think.

If you include the family members and carers dealing with autism as part of daily life, the number of people affected rises to 2.8 million.

What are the signs of autism?

Wellbeing experts at CABA and the National Autistic Society have put together a list of some of the signs for parents to look out for.

  • A very literal understanding of language. They may find it difficult to use, or understand, facial expressions, tone-of-voice or jokes

  • Difficulty making eye contact

  • Avoiding or resisting physical contact, they often want to be alone

  • Not responding to their name

  • Getting upset over minor changes

  • Displaying extreme anxiety and phobias

  • Have unusual reactions (over or under-sensitivity) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

  • Having obsessive interests

According to Dr Dimitrios Paschos, Consultant Psychiatrist in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities at Re:Cognition Health there are also some red flags of autism in babies and toddlers including:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months or thereafter

  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months

  • No babbling by 12 months

  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months

  • No words by 16 months

  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months

  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

READ MORE: A hearing test at birth aid ‘could aid in early diagnosis of autism’

Autism Awareness Week aims to increase understanding and acceptance of the condition [Photo: Getty]
Autism Awareness Week aims to increase understanding and acceptance of the condition [Photo: Getty]

What causes autism?

As autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition, the causes are currently unknown and still being investigated.

The NHS states that current evidence suggests that autism may be caused by many factors that affect the way the brain develops including genetics and environmental triggers.

Risk factors of autism

According to the NHS there are some possible triggers that could increase the likelihood of being autistic.

These include:

  • being born prematurely (before 35 weeks of pregnancy)

  • being exposed to alcohol in the womb

  • being exposed to certain medicines, such as sodium valproate (sometimes used to treat epilepsy), in the womb

What doesn’t cause autism

In the past, a number of things were linked to autism, most notably the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine following a paper by Andrew Wakefield. But after extensive research the paper proposing the connection was retracted and the doctor, who wrote the paper had his medical license revoked.

Over the years a number of other environmental factors have been linked to the condition, but according to the NHS extensive research has found no evidence to suggest that any of these contribute to the condition.

  • thiomersal – a mercury compound used as a preservative in some vaccines

  • the way a person has been brought up

  • diet, such as eating gluten or dairy products

  • pollution

  • maternal infections in pregnancy

READ MORE: A bottle of wine a week as bad as smoking 10 cigarettes for women

Diagnosis of autism

According to Dr Paschos confirming a diagnosis of autism early can be a complex process.

“There are early signs in many cases, most notably absence of some key developmental skills,” he explains. “But such deficits may be subtle and difficult to identify especially for first time parents who have no benchmarks to compare the development of their child to.”

He advises parents to discuss any concerns with their health visitor or seek medical advice at the earliest possible stage.

“Naturally, friends and family or misinformed professionals, try to reassure with the view that every child develops in a different way. Whilst this is correct we can now identify, with high accuracy, early symptoms of autism in children as young as 2 years old. Early diagnosis can lead to early intervention which has recognised benefits,” he adds.

According to the NHS a diagnosis of autism is based on the range of signs and characteristics your child is showing.

For most children:

  • information will be needed from your GP, nursery or school staff, plus speech and language and occupational therapists, about your child’s development, health and behaviour

  • a speech and language therapist, and often an occupational therapist, will carry out an assessment

  • a detailed physical examination will need to be carried out to rule out possible physical causes of your child’s symptoms, such as an underlying condition like neurofibromatosis or Down’s syndrome

  • the assessment will include a check for any other physical health conditions and mental health problems

Support following an autism diagnosis

Whilst there is currently no cure for autism, there are several treatments available that will help improve symptoms or problems resulting from the condition.

The NHS say support should involve local specialist community-based multidisciplinary teams (sometimes called “local autism teams”) working together, which may include a paediatrician, mental health specialists, such as a psychologist and psychiatrist, a learning disability specialist (if appropriate), a speech and language therapist, an occupational therapist, education and social services representatives from your local council.

There are plenty of misconceptions surrounding autism [Photo: Getty]
There are plenty of misconceptions surrounding autism [Photo: Getty]

READ MORE: As Jeremy Bowen reveals bowel cancer diagnosis, how to spot symptoms of the condition

Coping with autism

Dr Paschos has put together some tips for parents or carers who have a child with autism or suspect their child might be suffering from the condition.

  • An early diagnosis is key – If you have any suspicion that your child is presenting with symptoms, seek professional help as early intervention can help with managing the condition long term

  • Knowledge is power – Learn as much as you can about the condition. With knowledge and support you can develop a better understanding of how it affects the individual and how you can manage the condition. Take time to really understand the individual triggers, whether it be noisy or busy environments or bright lights causing anxiety or sensitivity.

  • Enlist help – Seek out support groups and parent network organisations so that you can share knowledge, experiences and ideas with others

  • Keep a behaviour diary – Look at the reasons for challenging behaviour and keep a diary to track what is going on before, during and after outbursts to help you be better prepared. Changes in routine, difficulty processing information, feelings of not being able to communicate can all be triggers of challenging behaviour.

  • Talk clearly and concisely – Speak to the individual in clear, short sentences that are easy to digest and understand. Complexity in communication can be overwhelming.

  • Praise where it’s due – Offer praise and rewards for good behaviour and achievements, however small they may seem.

  • Seek expert advice – Make sure you are getting all the help and support you need. The National Autistic Society has a Parent to Parent line on 0808 800 4106 to provide emotional support to parents and carers of children with autism. Request a social care needs assessment and for yourself as a carer. You may be entitled to respite care and a support from an outreach team.

  • Look after yourself – every carer needs down time to relax and unwind. Caring for an individual with autism can be a very intensive. It’s important to look after yourself, take time out to pursue your own hobbies and interests so you can be a better carer.

If you’re worried that your child is showing signs or symptoms of ASD visit your GP or visit The National Austistic Society’s website for more information.