Autism is a developmental disability that causes problems with social skills and communication. Autism can be mild or severe. It is different for every person. Autism is also known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella description for a group of pervasive developmental disorders including:
- Autism (Autistic Disorder)
- Asperger’s (Asperger’s Disorder/Syndrome)
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).
Children with ASD generally share difficulties in three main areas:
- social interaction
- communication(verbal and/or non-verbal)
- behaviour/play (restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and routines)
Not all behaviours will exist in every child. A diagnosis should be made by the child’s doctor or other professionals with experience in working with children with autism. Many children with an ASD also experience sensory processing difficulties such as being under or over-sensitive to touch, pain, taste, smell, sounds or sights. They may also have an intellectual disability or other specific learning disabilities and will require a range of support for their participation in activities of everyday life from being independent to requiring full-time care.
Common difficulties seen in children with ASD might be:
- Difficulty with managing transitions
- Sensory sensitivities
- Fine motor impairments such as handwriting
- Visual spatial perceptual difficulties
- Difficulty with or absence of pretend/imaginary play
- Stereotyped behaviours
- Narrow and intense interests
- A preference for routines
- Impaired social skills
- Difficulty understanding emotions in self and others
- Difficulty sharing interests with others
Possible Signs and Symptoms of ASD
- Not speaking or very limited speech
- Loss of words the child was previously able to say
- Difficulty expressing basic wants and needs
- Poor vocabulary development
- Problems following directions or finding objects that are named
- Repeating what is said (echolalia)
- Problems answering questions
- Speech that sounds different (e.g., “robotic” speech or speech that is high-pitched)
- Poor eye contact with people or objects
- Poor play skills (pretend or social play)
- Being overly focused on a topic or objects that interest them
- Problems making friends
- Crying, becoming angry, giggling, or laughing for no known reason or at the wrong time
- Disliking being touched or held
Reacting to the world around them
- Rocking, hand flapping or other movements (self-stimulating movements)
- Not paying attention to things the child sees or hears
- Problems dealing with changes in routine
- Using objects in unusual ways
- Unusual attachments to objects
- No fear of real dangers
- Being either very sensitive or not sensitive enough to touch, light, or sounds (e.g., disliking loud sounds or only responding when sounds are very loud; also called a sensory integration disorder)
- Feeding difficulties (accepting only select foods, refusing certain food textures)
- Sleep problems
What other disorders are similar to Autism?
Autism is often referred to as autism spectrum disorders. Severity and signs and symptoms vary greatly from person to person. Other terms are used to describe disorders that are similar to or even part of autism spectrum disorders. These disorders are typically included under the term pervasive developmental disorder.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD)
PDD is sometimes used to describe any group of developmental disorders that affect social skills and communication. PDD is used by some people to refer to autism, although the difference between the two is under debate.
PDD may refer to any of five diagnoses:
Asperger’s Syndrome—severe and sustained problems with social skills, with repetitive behaviors and restricted interests and activities. Language skills tend to be good, although social communication may be affected.
Rett’s Disorder—a progressive brain disorder that occurs almost only in girls. Children tend to develop normally for a period of time followed by loss of skills, especially hand skills, which are replaced by repetitive hand movements. Symptoms begin between the ages of 1 and 4 years old. Poor eye contact, a lag in brain and head growth, problems walking, language problems, and seizures are also symptoms.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder—a rare condition that occurs without a known medical cause. Typically children have at least 2 years of typical development before the beginnings of severe loss of skills in a number of areas, such as language, social skills, play, or motor skills. This disorder is associated with severe cognitive impairment.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)—an overall delay in development of communication and social skills that does not fit into another category and does not have a known cause.
What Therapies for Kids can do
An initial formal and informal assessment is necessary to ascertain the child’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and behaviour and to identify goals for intervention developed in conjunction with parents and carers. Our Occupational Therapists and Speech Pathologists use their knowledge of children’s play, sensorimotor, cognitive, language and social-emotional development to identify the nature of the child’s difficulties and develop the best intervention plan.
Occupational Therapists and Speech Pathologists can assist children to manage sensory sensitivities such as over reaction to noise, hypersensitivity to touch and behavioural issues such as distractibility and repetitive play behaviours. Fine motor coordination difficulties, organisation and information processing are other areas that are addressed in treatment sessions. OT’s can also help children overcome challenges they may have with self care activities such as eating, dressing and toileting to assist them to be as independent as possible. Your Occupational Therapist and Speech Pathologist will work collaboratively with your child, parents, other health professionals and teaching staff to ensure the best possible outcomes for your child.
What you can do
If you have concerns regarding your child’s development and you do not have a diagnosis it is best to meet with your General Practitioner or Paediatrician as an early diagnosis is preferable. However, you do not need a doctor’s referral or diagnosis to attend an initial OT Assessment. The OT can assess your child and begin treatment addressing goals and priorities and then provide information to your doctor as required.