AUTISM – ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
How Common is Autism in Australia?
It is estimated that at least one in fifty Australians are affected by autism. Statistically, boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. While the symptoms of autism are present in infancy, they may not be noticeable until the age of two or three years old. For some, the symptoms may not be apparent at all, and the condition only diagnosed later in life. *
What is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that may be mild, moderate or severe. It affects people differently, but it generally affects how people interact and behave with the world around them. *
For those with autism, the brain does not develop in the exact same way it does in most others. It is important to understand that autism is not a mental health problem or is it an intellectual disability. However, some people with autism can also have those problems in addition. *
It was once considered that autism and Asperger Syndrome were separate conditions, however, they are now considered to be part of the one condition, more specifically known as autism spectrum disorder or often referred to as ASD. *
Features of autism that are most recognisable are the difficulty with social interactions and communication with others. There are also often restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests, with people diagnosed with autism often becoming very focused on a subject.
Interestingly, history is filled with those who would today be diagnosed with autism. These historical figures can be highly intelligent, or sometimes of ‘normal’ intelligence. Many people diagnosed with autism can be prolific in their pursuits, with amazing results.
Research shows that the earlier a child is diagnosed and has treatment, the more likely the child will go on to develop the communication, social and life skills that contribute to a good quality of life. People with autism can learn the skills needed to function independently or in a supportive environment. **
What Causes Autism?
Autism is caused by the way that the brain develops. Research is also looking at the role of the environment in triggering autism, such as viral infections, complications during pregnancy and air pollutants.
There is no evidence that autism is caused by vaccinations, foods or other lifestyle factors, or by person’s cultural or social surroundings. **
Is Autism Genetic?
If someone in your family has autism, research suggests that it is more likely that other people in the family will also have autism. *
\What are the Symptoms of Autism?
The displayed behaviours of those with autism tend to fall into two broad categories. These categories include impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. **
There may be different signs of autism in different ages. For the first year, a baby with autism may not display interest in other people or may not make eye contact with the parents. Other signs include a lack of smiling and other gestures that babies typically make.
For toddlers with autism, they might not respond to their name, or they may focus on regimented activities like lining up their toys. They may not be interested in playing with other children or they may speak with a monotone voice.
Older children with autism may find they have difficulties in social settings, or following instructions given or when it comes to making friends. **
Some of the Common Signs and Symptoms of Autism*
- The lack of social or emotional exchanges like pointing, smiling, showing you things
- A difficulty developing and maintaining relationships appropriate to the age, such as peer play, lack of close friends
- The lack of non-verbal communication such as nodding and shaking head and using hand gestures
- A delayed onset of speech and a lack of understanding speech
- The lack of eye contact when speaking to others
- The loss of language skills at any age
- A tendency to excessively follow routines, patterns or behaviours and becoming excessively distressed at changes to these routines
- A stereotyped or repetitive speech pattern, the movements or use of preferred objects, such as rolling wheels before eyes, flapping hands, toe walking
- An overly strong reaction to sensory input such as sound, pain or textures
- Certain restricted or fixated interests such as only playing with certain toys or only discussing certain topics
- Being aggressive toward other people or toward themself
When Should You See Your Doctor?
If you are concerned that you or your child has autism it is important to see your doctor. What we do know is that early intervention provides the best outcomes for a child. If someone is thought to have autism, their doctor will typically refer them to a specialist, in the case of children, often they are referred to a paediatrician or a psychiatrist or a psychologist, to confirm the diagnosis.
The specialist typically uses a set of standard tests to make an autism diagnosis. To be diagnosed with autism, someone must have lasting difficulties in social communication and social interaction in multiple situations, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities.
These symptoms must have been evident from early life and significantly affect the person’s life. **
Autism is classified into three different levels:
Level 1: People requiring some level of support
Level 2: People requiring a substantial level of support
Level 3: People more severely affected and requiring very substantial support
Why a Diagnosis is Important
Children can usually be diagnosed at around the age of two, but sometimes their symptoms are subtle, and these children may not diagnosed until they start school or even later when they are adults. But what research does show is the sooner a child is diagnosed and supported, the better the outcomes.
However, as education and awareness has grown concerning autism, many people are not diagnosed until they are adults. For these people, they may have spent their life feeling like they don’t quite fit in. They may have experienced difficulties with relationships, work and social situations. They may also have mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.
While a diagnosis is important at any age, for those diagnosed as adults, there may be mixed and varied emotions, from relief to grief. The internationally successful comedian Hannah Gadsby has gone public about her recent autism diagnosis, and like many adults diagnosed, she has expressed a huge relief and is happy to talk, perform and write about her experience.
But it is important to know there is no right or wrong reaction to a diagnosis. Your reaction, either for your own diagnosis, or your child’s diagnosis could also easily change over time. But what is helpful, at any stage is to seek out the ever-growing range of assistance that there is in Australia. There is also a growing awareness societally that is helpful, and with this growing acceptance of autism, it is always preferable to seek out those individuals and organisations that support you.
An autism diagnosis can also provide better financial support. For some this may mean access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Others may qualify for specialised mental health services or supports in the workplace or while studying at university or TAFE.
How is Autism Treated?
If your child is diagnosed with autism, you will be guided through the various treatment options. There are education programs and support services available for children with autism and their parents or caregivers from a variety of organisations such as Autism Spectrum Australia.
Treatments used to manage autism are best started as early in a person’s life as possible. Specific symptoms and social skills can be improved with the right support and programs. Because everyone with autism is different, the best results are obtained from a treatment program specifically tailored to their individual needs.
Language and social skills are taught through intensive educational programs and behavioural therapies. Speech pathology focuses on developing communication and social skills. Occupational therapy concentrates on sensory motor development, such as learning play and fine motor skills, as well as how to cope in social situations.
There are both public and private schooling options that are available for children with autism. Sometimes claims are made about treatments that are misleading. Avoid treatments that offer a ‘cure’ or ‘recovery’ as there is no evidence to support these claims. Ensure that the treatments and support that you choose is informed by evidence.
Services vary from state to state and from city to rural locations. In the first instance it’s best to talk to your GP who will be familiar with what’s available in your local area.
In NSW, the Children’s Hospital Network and various NSW Health child development units provide public diagnostic services. Your GP or Paediatrician will be able to provide more information and refer you to your nearest location.
NDIS’s Early Childhood Early Intervention (ECEI) approach is also available to all children aged under 7 who have been identified with a developmental delay or disability (see contact details below).
There are also private health professionals and teams who conduct assessments on a fee-paying basis. If you can afford this option, this is usually the fastest way to get a diagnosis.
For children aged 13 years or under, Medicare rebates are available to help cover some of the cost including seeing a Paediatrician, Child and Adolescent Psychologists, Speech Pathologists, Occupational Therapists (OT) and Social Workers.
Autism Spectrum Australia
NDIS’s Early Childhood Early Intervention (ECEI)
Support for Carers:
* Health Direct Australia / Autism
By Tracey Hordern
Reviewed by the First Light Healthcare team
** Autism Awareness Australia