At some point, as I get to know a child, the idea needs to be raised. Sometimes parents come to therapy and ask, “Do you think my child has autism?” Other parents may have never considered the possibility and find it extremely difficult to begin to talk about this issue.
Parents may have developed their understanding of autism from the media. Very often, movies and books depict people with autism as having ALL the possible autistic symptoms. These symptoms have become a stereotype of autism. This can be very misleading. When parents look at their child, they say, “That doesn’t look like my child!”
As a Speech Pathologist I work with many children with autism or who are “on the autism spectrum” somewhere. They are all different. They have different symptoms and learn differently and at different rates. Many clinicians working with children “on the spectrum” find that they can quickly identify that this is the case by seeing a pattern of symptoms, rather than seeing a child exhibiting all of the ‘classic’ signs of autism.
Usually children arrive at Speech Pathology because they are not talking like their peers. A child may not be talking at all, or may be talking in a limited way. Children with autism often repeat exactly what they have heard, a kind of speech called echolalia. It may be what you have just said to them (like, “hello Olly”) or lines repeated verbatim from a movie. Sometimes the children may sound like they are talking in sentences but it may be their own language or the tune of speech without clear words.
From a Speech Pathologist’s perspective, there will be differences to normal development in the way a child communicates, not just talking. Eye contact is usually limited, and your child may not automatically turn to you when you try to attract his attention.
When children are learning to talk following the usual pattern, they learn to copy most of the adult purposes for communicating. So they will ask for things, protest and refuse, use polite language, make comments about things they see or hear, and ask and answer questions. They want to communicate because they want to interact with others. If a child is having difficulty getting their message across they can work out a range of strategies to get what they want.
Usually children with autism communicate only for a limited range of purposes and don’t tend to seek interaction just for the sake of communicating. They can become very upset when they are unable to have their needs met or when something upsets them. It is not always easy to work out why they are upset. Children with autism can be upset more easily than other children if they have sensory difficulties, also, such as being too sensitive to sound or touch.
They can also be less sensitive to senses such as sound and touch and seek out stimulation, by pushing against people or mirrors, for example, or spinning around or flapping their hands.
Children tend to want to socialise with others, and learn to take turns in conversations and with toys (although this part can take a long time!). Children with autism usually don’t seek to play with peers and are happier left to do their own thing. Often they even limit physical contact, such as hugging, with parents and brothers and sisters.
A diagnosis can be a very difficult thing for parents to accept, particularly if their understanding of a disorder is influenced by media. The media has certainly picked up on autism in the last decade or so, and there are almost limitless books and films depicting people with autism.
Please do not be daunted by these portrayals. Children are all individuals with their own personalities and skills. If a child has autism, it is probably better to know than not to know, for a number of reasons. Other people are likely to be more understanding of the difficulties you are facing and treatment can be planned and managed.
Most children with autism can be shown how to communicate with others. They participate in school and lots of other activities in which they show an interest. Some children with autism are exceptionally clever with things that interest them. They learn social skills and how to interact successfully with other people.