What is autism? Signs of the developmental disorder in children

There are around 700,000 people on the autistic spectrum in the UK.

When you consider the families affected by the developmental disorder, that equates to around 2.8 million people.

According to the National Autistic Society, people who aren’t properly diagnosed and given the support they need can feel isolated and risk developing mental health problems.

“Autism is a way in which the brain is wired,” author of My Awesome Autism, Nikki Saunders, explained. “It can affect how a person can perceive their environment, how they interact socially and communicate with people.”

Saunders, a guest on Yahoo UK’s parenting video series The Baby Bump with Lauren Pope, explains no two diagnoses are the same.

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Signs of autism tend to differ in children. (Getty Images)
Signs of autism tend to differ in children. (Getty Images)

Because no two experiences are the same, it can be challenging for parents to pick up on cues that their child may be autistic, particularly when autism can be less obvious in girls than in boys.

“The most common sign would be sensory; reactions to noise, to light, to food. My little boy used to walk on his tiptoes as well, so little things like that, that you notice in the early years,” Saunders said.

Educational psychologist, Claire Prosser, explained that autism is “context dependent”.

“You might have somebody who has what’s called high-functioning autism which means that they are quite able to manage different sorts of environments.

“Or, you could have what we class as low-functioning autism and they struggle in lots of different environments. But that’s not to say that the high-functioning child on the spectrum will cope as well as other children in certain situations.”

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“I used to work with adults with autism,” Saunders said, meaning that she was tuned into these feelings when realising that her son had autism.

“For my son, it’s because he absolutely loves wheels. He’ll just tip over the buggy and flick the wheels for ages. He loved the repetition of it and the feel of it.

“He will also zone in on lights on his toys. He would hand flap if he was trying to regulate his emotions when he was really excited.

“But also, in noisy environments he would become quite distressed. Sometimes I’d remove us from the situation and go somewhere calmer and he would soon settle.”

Saunders said that she thinks “she knew inside” but wanted some reassurance from a professional that her thoughts were valid.

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Prosser noticed similar traits to what Saunders described in her son.

“From about a year old, Seb was quite anxious and if we went anywhere he would get very, very upset,” she explained.

Prosser admitted that she had expectations of all the things that her and her son would be able to do together, but they weren’t able to do those things - like going out to a cafe or a play area for example.

“For me, it was that more than anything else. He did have sensory behaviours, he would flap his hands but really it was the social anxiety and the adjustment that I was making which were the things that I noticed most.”

Sensory experiences and social anxiety are common signs of autism in children according to the NHS. Other signs might include; avoiding eye contact, not responding to their name and not smiling when you smile at them.

If you suspect autism in your child, speak to your GP, health visitor or any other health professional your child sees. You can read more about typical signs of autism on the NHS’ website.

5 children’s books about autism and diversity by Nikki Saunders

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My Awesome Autism | £6.99 from Amazon

A book to help children understand and communicate about their diagnosis. This beautiful sensory illustrated book is about a little boy named Eddie who shares his findings about his autism.

My Friend Eddie: The Eddie Series | £5.99 from Amazon

A helpful eye opening book for friends and siblings of children with autism.

I'm Going To School - Transition Workbook | £5.99 from Amazon

Starting school can be challenging for many children and even more so for children with ASD. The photos, words and pictures you personalise into this book, will help your child learn specific information about what to expect in their new environment and why.

Welcome Back Eddie After Lockdown | £4.99 from Amazon

A great book for children anxious about returning to school. This book displays how Eddie is supported at home and at school, giving lots of positives and reassurance.

Mistakes Are Cool | £3.99 from Amazon

Eddie shows children alternative ways of positive thinking and the benefit of making mistakes. This book benefits all children and especially those with SEN.