Parents' Guide to Autism

You’re familiar with the term, but how does autism actually affect a child? How can you tell if your child may be autistic? And what should you do if you see the signs…?

Could my child have Autism?

Jack was 16 months old when his mum noticed something was different about her son. While other children happily threw their arms around their parents, Jack seemed to recoil at cuddles, and seemed completely disinterested in human contact.

Jack is one of the estimated 588,000 people in the UK with autism*. in some cases the disorder can be diagnosed from as early as 18 months, however because the autistic spectrum is so complex, it can be easy to miss clues. For some individuals, autism can go undetected for many years, particularly in those at the more able end of the spectrum where the signs can be subtle.

What are the signs?

Autism is diagnosed using the ‘triad of impairments’. Every person is unique and behaviour will vary significantly, but all people with autism will display some difficulties across the triad.

Impairment of social interaction

Children with autism often have difficulties engaging with other people. They may find it hard to make friends and appear aloof or indifferent to peers and family members. If they do seek interaction, it may be one-sided or inappropriate, for example they may speak to their Mum in the same (formal) manner they would to their head teacher.

Impairment of communication

Children with autism may have impairments in their verbal and non-verbal communication. As well as delayed speech development, children might not understand the purpose or pleasure of speech. For example, a child with autism might be thirsty but will not realise they need to ask for a drink. Such difficulties can easily lead to frustration for both the child and parent.

However, some children with high functioning autism, such as Asperger's syndrome, may not have delayed speech development. They may have excellent vocabulary, but use it in a formal or inappropriate manner, such as reciting irrelevant facts or talking over other people.

Likewise, children with autism may not recognise non-verbal cues such as posture, facial expressions and tone of voice. They may also avoid eye contact and use limited hand gestures such as pointing.

Impairment of imagination

Children with autism may have difficulty playing with other children, objects and toys. They often focus on a small part of an object, for example the wheel of a toy car, and play with it in a repetitive manner.

When choosing books to read, children with autism may prefer factual books rather than fiction, and if reading fiction may have problems with comprehension. This can cause difficulty in school subjects such as literacy, where there is a need to use abstract thought.

They could also have difficulty empathising with others or seeing things from another point of view. Change can be hard to cope with, and they may become distressed if their usual routine is disrupted.

Other traits that some children with autism may display: 

  • Repetitive movements such as flicking fingers 
  • Motor control – difficulty with fine and gross motor skills
  • Sensory differences – for example unusual sensitivity to heat or noise.

My child presents some of these signs… what now?

If your child presents signs of autism, the NAS Autism Helpline is a good place to start. An adviser will be able to answer your questions and refer you to further resources or specialists in your area. You can also talk to your local GP or health visitor.

Diagnosis of autism is likely to bring a mixture of feelings – shock, denial and perhaps relief at being able to understand your child’s needs. For most parents, it is a starting point for getting the right support for their children. See the NAS website for more information.

*National Autistic Society

Related links

  • Autism - a parent's perspective: It took six frustrating years to get a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome for Claire’s eldest son Jack. Claire describes how her son’s autism affects the whole family, and offers her personal tips and resources for other parents.
  • Understanding Autism - one mum's story: Wonder mum Dawn Prowse is mother to eight children, two of whom are on the autistic spectrum. In this interview, she describes the process of diagnosis, treatment and support for her boys – and the relief of having a ‘label’ for her children’s behaviour.
  • Behaviour and Discipline issues for children with Autism: Children with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome have unique behaviour issues. The National Autistic Society has some simple and effective strategies for dealing with behaviour at home and in public.
  • Supernanny Blog - Dawn Prowse: Dawn gives the lowdown on family life with her eight children, two of whom are on the autistic spectrum. Take a peek at her daily routine as mum, chauffeur, nurse, teacher, hairdresser, accountant, agony aunt... and now blogger...


Find out more

  • The National Autistic Society has a wealth of information and support for people with autism and Asperger's Syndrome, their parents and carers. 
  • Rayvens Rants is an excellent introduction to Autism with answers to some common questions from parents. 

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