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What is autism?

Autism is a complex range of conditions that affects a child’s development, characterised by deficits in social communication and social interaction and the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities. It is a spectrum disorder (Autism Spectrum Disorder), meaning that a diagnosis of Autism could appear differently for each individual, varying in severity.

COMMUNICATION

This includes verbal (language) and non‐verbal (such as pointing and smiling). Children with autism may have no speech, delayed speech, or rote and repetitive speech. They might be able to recite whole scripts from videos but be unable to have a two-way conversation

SOCIAL INTERACTIONS

Challenges with relating to other people and sharing emotions. Young children with autism often don’t share their experiences, they usually play alone even when other children are around, often appearing to lack awareness of others.

RESTRICTIVE & REPETITIVE BEHAVIOURS

Children with autism often have a liking for sameness (words or movements) and will rigidly follow routines. They may play in an unusual way (lining cars up in a perfect line rather than playing imaginatively with them). Older children may talk obsessively about one topic.

An autism diagnosis can mean many and varied challenges and every child presents with a unique set of developmental difficulties. Whatever your child’s particular needs, positive outcomes can be achieved with an intensive, early intervention approach. The first step is obtaining a professional assessment and diagnosis.

Diagnostic criteria

The new diagnostic criteria, broken down into two categories:

Diagnostic Criteria A

Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

Diagnostic Criteria B:

Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history

  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases)
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day)
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest)
  • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

Recognising Autism + What To Do

Recognising signs of autism in your child is the first step in leading to the appropriate referrals for diagnosis and treatment. If you are concerned that your child may be showing signs of autism, speak to your GP immediately. They should then refer your child to a developmental paediatrician or to see a multidisciplinary team at your local assessment centre.

AUTISM RESOURCES

There are many resources available for parents and caregivers to find out more about autism and its diagnosis. The following is a list of some reputable sources of information.

An online screening tool, the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers or M-CHAT can help identify if your concerns warrant further investigation.

The Autism Awareness website has more information about the pathway to an autism diagnosis and diagnostic criteria.

Formal diagnosis of autism is in accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition(DSM5). For an explanation of the most recent criteria see DSM-5: changes to autism spectrum disorder diagnosis (Raising Children Network), and DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria (Autism Speaks).

A range of helpful information about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can be found on the Raising Children Network website. The Australian Autism Handbook 2nd Edition offers guidance, expert advice and support for parents of children with ASD.

Applied Behaviour Analysis

Children on the autism spectrum can learn and be independent. While there are many options, Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention programs using the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) have been shown to address the characteristics of autism. In fact, ABA is the only intervention method with established research to show positive outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Read more about ABA

Read more about ABA on the Australian Government's Raising Children's Network and a range of articles on ASD therapies and services.