autism; spectrum; disorders; Asperger; syndrome; communication; intellectual; disability; early intervention; developmental; echolalia; savant; diagnosis; resources ;
Autism occurs in people from all cultures and countries. It was first named by Professor Leo Kanner in 1943 and is sometimes called Kanner's Syndrome.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects at least 1 in 1000 people. It affects more boys than girls (approximately 4 boys for every 1 girl). People with autism have problems with communication, social interaction, imagination and repetitive activities. Parents do not cause autism.
Autism is part of a group of disorders called 'Autism Spectrum Disorders'. Asperger Syndrome is another type of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Two related topics
There is information about some funding for Australian families who have a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder on the website of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs 'Helping Children with Autism'.
- Autism is a type of developmental disorder. This means that children with autism develop their learning and thinking skills in unusual ways and at different ages to other children.
- Autism always affects the development of communication skills and social skills.
- People with autism have repetitive behaviour patterns and obsessive interests. They have trouble accepting changes in their life. This can affect their thinking skills, especially reasoning and imagination.
- Autism is not a disease or an illness. People do not 'catch' it nor do they 'recover' from it. People with autism are affected throughout their lives. However, the effects change as people get older, especially if they are helped with their learning.
- Autism is usually present from birth but may take a long time to be recognised and diagnosed.
- Some children with autism will also have other problems.
- About 30% develop epilepsy.
- About 75% of children with autism also have intellectual disability.
Causes of autism
- There is no one cause for autism. The causes can vary in different people.
- It is possibly caused by a combination of genetic factors, viral infection and/or complications during pregnancy.
- Current research is looking at how the brain works in people with autism. In some cases, individual areas of the brain (including the cerebellum and frontal lobes) seem to function differently.
- Research looking at genes is starting to show differences in the genes of children with autism. These differences are probably small and they probably need to interact with other genes to cause the disability.
- If there is autism in the family, there is an increased risk of someone else in the family having autism, Asperger syndrome or a language disorder. The risk is increased from about 1:1000 to 2-3 in 100.
- Immunisation is not a cause of autism. Many very large research studies have been done and these clearly show there is no causative link between any immunisation and autism.
- You may hear a number of theories about what may trigger autism. If you have any questions, contact your local doctor or paediatrician.
How is autism diagnosed?
A diagnosis for autism is based on a child's behaviour and development. There are no easy medical tests to prove that a child has autism. However, there are a number of recognised standards that are used in many countries to help professionals decide about a diagnosis.
Often, a diagnosis is made by a multidisciplinary team. This is a group of people who have different professional backgrounds. People who diagnose autism can include a:
- speech pathologist
Usually, two of these professionals are required to be involved in each diagnosis. These people should be experienced in recognising autism.
A diagnosis is made by looking at how children communicate, their social interactions (behaviour with other people) and any repetitive behaviours that may be present.
- Children with autism have a language disorder.
- They have difficulty understanding verbal language (what is said) and do not notice or understand the non-verbal communication of other people (how people show their feelings eg by smiling or frowning).
- They also have difficulty using language (expressing themselves) and using non-verbal communication. This means that they do not often:
- gesture with their hands, especially to point at things
- make eye contact (look other people in the eyes)
- show expression on their face
- change their voice tone or volume
- show how they feel by the way they walk or stand.
- Many children with autism do not learn to talk. Some may begin to talk and then stop. Others may have good speech but they may use language in unusual ways.
- Some children with autism seem to be deaf because they do not react to sounds around them, for example, they do not answer to their own name. Others may be especially sensitive to certain types of sounds (such as music from their favourite television program).
- Many children with autism have echolalia. This means they repeat what is said to them like an echo. For example, if you say, 'Hello, Johnny.' the child with autism may reply, 'Hello, Johnny'.
- Children with autism take what you say literally. They do not understand that words can be used in many ways. If you tell children with autism that you could eat a horse, they might think that you will.
- These communication problems make it harder for children with autism to interact with others.
- Many children with autism do not have a need for social interaction and prefer to be alone.
- It is difficult for children with autism to make friends.
- They need help to learn social skills because they do not understand the rules that control how people should act in different situations.
- Children with autism are often said to be 'egocentric'. This means that they think of themselves first and do not think about how they are affecting other people.
- They usually seem unaware of other people's feelings.
- They rarely share interests with other people.
Children and adults with autism often have many unusual and difficult behaviours. They may:
- insist on a number of routines, as routines can help them feel less confused. They may also be very distressed if a routine is changed. For example, a routine could be disturbed if a parent uses a different route when taking the child to kindergarten.
- have tantrums and be aggressive at times, especially if they have to cope with a change to their routine. Sometimes they will deliberately hurt themselves.
- have obsessive interest in objects, activities and places and not be willing to talk about or do other things.
- make unusual body movements which seem to offer comfort, such as hand flapping, finger wriggling, stiff walking movements, walking on their toes, body rocking, head banging and hair twirling.
- be very sensitive to sound, colours, tastes, smells and textures. Because of this, they may be unwilling to try any new foods or they may refuse to wear some clothes because of the feel of the clothes.
- be sensitive to being touched and held by other people (even their parents).
- be very good at drawing, music, calendar calculation or memory. But only a few people with autism have these special skills. Sometimes these people are called 'savants'.
Most young children, even before they use words, will know how to play with toys such as a car (you push it along and make engine noises) or a tea set (you pretend to drink). Children with autism do not develop these play skills. Parents may notice that their child:
- does the same thing over and over like spinning the wheels of the doll's pusher
- is not able to pretend during play
- is destructive with toys.
How is autism treated?
- Many different 'therapies' have been used to help children with autism. Autism associations recommend that any therapy is thoroughly investigated before you commit to it as some 'therapies' are very expensive and have been shown not to work.
- Special education and behaviour management programs can help children improve their social skills and behaviour.
- Some children with mild difficulties will be able to live independently, but others need support all of their lives.
- People with autism have a normal life expectancy (they will live as long as other family members do).
- There is no medical treatment for autism, but some medication can help with anxiety and concentration. What works for one child may have a very different effect on another child.
- Support groups and examples of what other families have done can be helpful to parents. However, there is so much variation in autism that what works for some families may not work for others.
- There is no cure for autism.
What you can do
- Parents do not cause autism. Autism is a developmental disorder that is caused by the way your child's brain develops.
- Children with autism will act differently from your other children. You will have to learn new and different ways to help and teach this child.
- If you think your child has autism, or one of the other disorders within the autism spectrum, it is best to have an assessment as soon as possible. There may be a waiting time for an assessment.
- You do not have to wait for a diagnosis before you can get help. You can seek support from other early intervention services for speech pathology, occupational therapy and educational support.
- A full assessment by a paediatrician (specialist in child medicine) can rule out some of the other reasons why a child could have difficulty with development, speech and behaviour, such as hearing and vision problems.
- Support from other parents can be important.
Preschool and school
Children with autism have different educational support needs. Additional support may be provided for your child while at childcare, preschool or school. Some of this support may come from specialist agencies. This is organised through the childcare or preschool director, or school principal.
When you enrol your child at a childcare, preschool or school, the staff will talk to you about his or her needs. They will want to know about any special routines or interests that your child has and how he or she communicates. They will also want to know about the ways that you have learned to manage the child's behaviour. Teachers will think about the best way to teach your child and may make changes to the classroom that will help your child. You should let childcare, preschool or school staff know if your child is sensitive to certain sounds, smells or being touched. This will help them develop appropriate plans for your child.
- Autism Association of South Australia Inc
Autism SA Info line 1300 288 476
Tel. 8379 6976.
- Disability Connect
diSAbility connect is for parents and carers of children and young people with disability living in South Australia. It provides a gateway to help you to find information about your child’s disability and to existing information on programs, services, benefits and payments that may help you to care for your child.
For a more comprehensive list of resources see the topic
Autism - resources.
Prepared in collaboration with
Department of Education, Training and Employment
Ministerial Advisory Committee on Students with Disabilities
Attwood Tony. 'Why does Chris do that?'. National Autistic Society, London, 1993.
Baird G, Cass H, Slonims V. 'Diagnosis of autism'. British Medical Journal 2003;327:488-93 http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/
Baron-Cohen Simon. 'Autism: The facts'. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) 'Vaccine safety - Measles, mumps and rubella vaccines' 2009
Clifton Deirdre. & Dodd Susan, 'Early play program'. Autistic Association of New South Wales, Forrestville, NSW, (no date).
Dodd Susan. 'Managing problem behaviours: A practical guide for parents and teachers of young children with special needs'. MacLennan and Petty, Sydney, 1994.
Grandin Temple. 'Emergence: Labelled autistic', Arena Press, Novato, USA, 1986.
Grandin Temple. 'Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism'. Vintage, New York, 1996.
Quill Kathleen Ann. 'Teaching children with autism: Strategies to enhance communication and socialization'. Delmar, Melbourne, 1995.
Sacks Oliver, 'An Anthropologist from Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales'. Knoft, New York, 1995.
Szatmari P. 'The causes of Autism Spectrum Disorders'. British Medical Journal 2003; 326: 173-4.
Whelan EM, Miller HI 'Unlocking the genetic secrets of Autism' American Council on Science and Health 29.07.2010
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.