Autism signs, symptoms and getting a diagnosis explained

Autism symptoms explained. (Getty Images)
Speak to your GP or health professional if you or your child has signs of autism. (Getty Images)

With celebrities including Christine McGuinness – who didn't get diagnosed until she was 33 – talking about autism in the spotlight, thankfully misconceptions surrounding it are starting to be challenged more.

But despite there being around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, we still have a way to go with ensuring people with autism don't face discrimination or barriers in their life, whether in healthcare, education, employment, or any aspect of society.

Only 29% of autistic people are in any form of employment, 70% of autistic people experience mental health problems, and there are more than 150,000 people on the waiting list for an autism assessment in the UK, according to National Autistic Society.

So, to help break down these barriers this World Autism Acceptance Week and any week, here's what we know about the signs and symptoms, diagnosis process and more.

What is autism?

Autism affects how you communicate and interact with the world. But being autistic does not mean you have an illness or disease, it just means your brain works differently from other people, according to the NHS.

It's something you're born with and have your whole life. There are no treatments or 'cure' (and there doesn't need to be one, as it should be seen as a difference, not a disadvantage, the National Autistic Society believes), but some things can help offer support.

As autism is a spectrum, and everybody is different and everyone can have any level of intelligence, some people may need little or no support, and some may need every day help, like for a learning disability.

Autistic people may have other conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, anxiety, depression, and epilepsy.

If you include the family members and carers dealing with autism, it is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people, according to Beyond Autism.

Kid looking out the window. (Getty Images)
Autism is present from birth, though it might not be recognised until adulthood. (Getty Images)

What are the signs of autism?

The signs of autism may differ between children, adults, and sexes. Here's what to look out for, according to the NHS.

Autism in young children

  • not responding to their name

  • avoiding eye contact

  • not smiling when you smile at them

  • getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound

  • repetitive movements

  • not talking as much as other children

  • not doing as much pretend play

  • repeating the same phrases

Autism in older children

  • not seeming to understand what others are thinking or feeling

  • unusual speech, such as repeating phrases and talking ‘at’ others

  • liking a strict daily routine and getting very upset if it changes

  • having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities

  • getting very upset if you ask them to do something

  • finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on their own

  • taking things very literally

  • finding it hard to say how they feel

Autism in girls

Girls may:

  • hide some signs of autism by copying how other children behave and play

  • withdraw in situations they find difficult

  • appear to cope better with social situations

  • show fewer signs of repetitive behaviours

Autism can be harder to spot in women and girls, the NHS points out. (Getty Images)
Autism can be harder to spot in women and girls, the NHS points out. (Getty Images)

Main signs of autism in adults

  • finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling

  • getting very anxious about social situations

  • finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own

  • seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to

  • finding it hard to say how you feel

  • taking things very literally

  • having the same routine every day and getting very anxious if it changes

Other signs may include not understanding social 'rules', avoiding eye contact, getting too close to other people or upset if someone does to you, noticing small details others don't, having a keen interest in certain things, liking to plan things carefully.

Autism in women

Women may:

  • have learned to hide signs of autism to ‘fit in’ – by copying people who don’t have autism

  • be quieter and hide their feelings

  • appear to cope better with social situations

  • show fewer signs of repetitive behaviours

What causes autism?

The exact cause of autism is not known, or even if it has one at all.

As it can affect people in the same family, researchers think it's at least partly genetic and can run in the family, though it can also develop when there's no family history. It is not caused by 'bad parenting', vaccines, diet or an infection you can spread to others.

There is no way to predict whether a child will be autistic, even if one or both of their parents are. More research is being done to find out which genes cause autism.

Watch: Chris Packham in tears as he reads 'touching' letter from Radio 2 Ken Bruce's autistic non-verbal son

Diagnosis of autism

According to Dr Dimitrios Paschos, consultant psychiatrist in intellectual and developmental disabilities at Re:Cognition Health, confirming a diagnosis of autism early on can be a complex process.

"There are early signs in many cases, most notably absence of some key developmental skills," he explains. "But such things 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 two years old. Early diagnosis can lead to early intervention which has recognised benefits," he adds.

If you or your child have signs of autism, the NHS urges speaking to someone about it, including a GP, health visitor (for children under five), another health professional you see, or a special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) staff at your child's school.

Ask about referring you or your child for an autism assessment done by specialists, as this is the only way to find out if you have it.

Support following an autism diagnosis

While a diagnosis can be helpful and a relief for some, for others it can come as a shock, so it's important to first give yourself time to come to terms with it.

While there is no 'cure' for autism as mentioned, there is help out there, should you need it.

This might be from local support groups, charities, other autistic people or parents online, your school, college or workplace, your local council and GP.

You can find out where you can get support on this NHS website page.

Support group. (Getty Images)
You are not alone if you or your child has been diagnosed with autism. (Getty Images)

Coping with autism as a carer

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 for some

  • 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 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 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 suspect your child is showing signs or symptoms of ASD visit your GP or visit The National Autistic Society’s website for more information.