What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD as it is more commonly known, is a condition which affects around 1 in 70 children, with boys affected 3 times as often as girls.

The cause of autism is not known, however it is clear that children are born with autism and it is definitely not due to immunisation, illness or the result of a difficult birth.

ASD is a lifelong developmental condition and people living with ASD often have difficulties with social interaction, repetitive interests and behaviours and sensory issues.

Every single person with ASD will present differently, which is why the term ‘spectrum’ is used. People with ASD will all experience different challenges, but the vast majority go on to have very “normal” lives, finish their education goals, develop intimate relationships, have children etc.

For parents, because everyone with ASD presents differently, it can be difficult to spot the signs of ASD.

What Are Some of the Early Warning Signs for ASD?
  • does not have any single words by 18-20 months (assuming hearing has been tested and is normal)
  • does not use two-word phrases by 2.5 years (again assuming hearing is normal)
  • has reduced eye contact or “looks through” people
  • tends not to try and engage others, still almost always prefers to play alone beyond the age of 3 years
  • has an unusual, fixed attachment to a particular toy or object
  • does not respond to their own name by 18 months despite normal hearing
  • has difficulty interpreting emotions of others, tends not to show empathy or has inappropriate social responses (e.g. laughing when someone else is crying, appears oblivious to other people being upset)
  • has difficulty initiating or responding to affection from close family members
  • has an extremely high pain threshold
  • has not developed the ability to point at objects of interest (e.g. fire engine, hot air balloon, animals at the zoo) by the age of 2 years
  • long tantrums lasting in excess of around 20 minutes on a regular basis
  • becomes very distressed if there is a change in routine e.g. doesn’t cope well with holidays, new teacher or moving to a new house
  • unusually distressed by common and everyday loud noises such as vacuum cleaner, lawnmower etc
  • very sensitive to certain sensory stimuli, e.g. can’t tolerate hair washing, haircuts etc without prolonged distress or tantrum
What Are Some Signs of ASD In Older Children?
  • appearing disinterested or unaware of other people or what’s going on around them
  • not knowing how to connect with others, play, or make friends
  • doesn’t appreciate the personal space of others, “gets in people’s faces”
  • misinterprets the actions of others e.g. assumes that someone who accidentally bumps them in a queue was deliberately trying to hurt them
  • has concrete or “black and white” way of thinking
  • very literal interpretation of language e.g. doesn’t understand phrases such as “pull your socks up” or “hold your horses”
  • has difficulty understanding humour, particularly sarcasm
  • trouble understanding the body language of others
  • difficulty differentiating between subtleties of emotions e.g. frustrated versus disappointed, anxious versus angry
  • tries to constantly steer conversations in the directions of their interests
What to Do If You Think Your Child May Have ASD?

Your first point of call for any concerns with your child’s health or development should always be your GP or Maternal and Child Health Nurse. They will be able to discuss your concerns with you and together you can decide if your child requires a referral to a paediatrician.

All paediatricians trained in Australia have extensive training and experience in developmental conditions such as ASD, ADHD etc.

How Is ASD Diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there is no one test for ASD that can provide you with all the answers. A health professional will diagnose ASD by:

  • watching your child play and observing their interactions with others
  • asking you a series of questions about your child, their development history and any problems or concerns you may have identified at home
  • reviewing your child’s developmental history
  • providing questionnaires for you and your child’s other key caregivers to complete

An official diagnosis will usually involve your child seeing multiple health specialists, which is known as a multidisciplinary assessment.  This will ensure an accurate diagnosis for your child and speed up the process of developing a treatment plan.

The multidisciplinary team will usually include a paediatrician, a psychologist/mental health trained occupational therapist and a speech pathologist.

What Tests Might Be Ordered?

There are a variety of tests which may be ordered but the common ones are:

  • Genetic tests as the advancements in genetic testing means that it is now possible to identify a genetic cause for autism in around 1 in 4 affected children. This is almost always performed by a simple soft swab of the inside of your child’s mouth and can be done in the office. This can help with:
    • advice regarding other potential medical complications
    • recurrence risk
    • helping with medication choices (if required).
  • Blood tests, for example testing for iron deficiency. These conditions are not the cause of autism but are commonly associated, particularly for those children with autism who are very fussy eaters. Correcting these are very important for maximising children’s learning potential.
What Next?

If you think your child may be displaying signs of ASD or you have further questions, see your GP to arrange a referral and then CONTACT US to book an appointment.