Today it was revealed that children across the UK are waiting up to four years to be diagnosed with autism. 

Ministers slammed the ‘harmful’ delays because they can stop children ‘getting the help they need in other aspects of their lives’.

So what does autism look like in children?

Some infants show hints in their first months. In others, behaviours don’t become obvious until they’re toddlers. Some don’t show any signs at all.

Here, Dr Punit Shah, a professor in psychology and expert in neurodiversity from the University of Bath, breaks down some of the potential giveaway signs…

For many children with autism avoiding eye contact during a conversation helps to reduce anxiety, experts say

For many children with autism avoiding eye contact during a conversation helps to reduce anxiety, experts say

For many children with autism avoiding eye contact during a conversation helps to reduce anxiety, experts say

Avoiding eye contact

Not giving eye contact during a conversion is one sign your child may have autism.  

That’s because for many children with autism avoiding eye contact helps to reduce anxiety, explains Dr Shah, who appeared on the first episode of the 2023 BBC docuseries ‘Inside Our Autistic Minds’ presented by Springwatch host Chris Packham. 

‘The reasons for why some autistic people avoid eye contact vary and not all autistic people do avoid it,’ he added. ‘For some that do, it is to reduce anxiety, which helps them to manage better in social situations.’

It can also help children with autism better understand a social situation by reading the person’s facial expressions.  

Dr Shah said: ‘For others, it can help them process other stimuli better, without the complexity of the social information from the eyes and face.’

Sensory sensitivity

Becoming distressed at loud noises is one sensory difference often noticeable in children with autism. 

These sensory sensitivities can make it hard to filter out irrelevant noises making it hard not to become uncomfortable or distracted leading to an overwhelming feeling. 

‘Generally speaking, autistic children have sensory sensitivities to different things,’ Dr Shah said.

‘This can often be to predictable things, like bright lights and loud sounds, but also unusual colours and patterns. 

‘It really depends on the person.’

Speech difficulty

Echoing words and phrases, not talking as much as other children and talking ‘at’ others are all signs of autism. 

Dr Shah said: ‘Speech is generally a bit delayed in autistic children, but not always. 

‘Another sign can be repetitive sounds or speech – sometimes known as echolalia – which can be a feature of autism.’

Taking language very literally is also a communication difficulty that autistic children often struggle with, according to the NHS

For example, they may not understand phrases like ‘break a leg’ and instead take it too literally. 

Communicating what they want can also prove to be a challenge for some autistic children. 

Charity Child Autism UK gives the example of taking an adult to the biscuit tin rather than asking or pointing.

Children with autism who like routine and show signs of repetitive behaviour may play with the a toy in the same way each time or line items up

Children with autism who like routine and show signs of repetitive behaviour may play with the a toy in the same way each time or line items up

Children with autism who like routine and show signs of repetitive behaviour may play with the a toy in the same way each time or line items up

It can be harder for children with autism to make friends and they often chose to play alone, according to Child Autism UK

It can be harder for children with autism to make friends and they often chose to play alone, according to Child Autism UK

It can be harder for children with autism to make friends and they often chose to play alone, according to Child Autism UK

Repetitive behaviour 

Preferring a very strict daily routine and getting upset if it changes is a sign of autism in children, the NHS says. 

Dr Shah explains this need for routine can present itself in different ways and can be idiosyncratic, meaning children will have unusual habits or ways of behaving. 

However, this does depend on the individuals interests and needs. 

‘Typically, this can take the form of needing the daily routine to be predictable based on timing of daily activities,’ he said. 

HOW AUTISM IN GIRLS CAN PRESENT DIFFERENTLY

Autism can sometimes be different in boys and girls. 

Rates of autism diagnosis are up to five times higher in men and boys.

The exact reason remains unclear, but some studies suggest boys are at greater risk of the varied genetic causes of autism.

Researchers also believe many girls may be ‘flying under the radar’, as they struggle to get a diagnosis, receive a diagnosis late in life or are misdiagnosed with conditions other than autism.

Signs of autism in girls that could be different to boys include: 

  • Hiding signs of autism by copying how other children behave and play
  • Withdraw in situations they find difficult
  • Appear to cope better with social situations
  • Show fewer signs of repetitive behaviours 

Source: NHS 

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Children with autism who like routine and show signs of repetitive behaviour may play with the a toy in the same way each time or line items up, according to Child Autism UK. 

The charity highlights that signs can also include ‘being restrictive around certain activities such as eating only yellow food, watching the same programme over and over or only wearing a favourite jumper’. 

Repetitive movements 

It’s not just a repetitive routine, children with autism can also do the same movements on repeat. 

In young children this could present itself as flapping their hands, flicking their fingers or rocking their body, the NHS says. 

However, children may also want to seek out specific visual or auditory experiences, Child Autism UK says. 

The charity suggests this could be relative actions such as spinning wheels on a toy train, looking at the bars of a fence, or listening to the themes tunes of favourite programmes. 

Misunderstanding emotion

It can be harder for children with autism to make friends and they often chose to play alone, according to Child Autism UK.  

Some children may also struggle to say how they feel and sometimes do not understand what others are feeling, the NHS says. 

However, misunderstanding emotion and not seeming to understand what others are thinking or feeling can be a sign of several conditions. 

Dr Shah said: ‘This really depends on the person and can often be related to conditions that overlap with autism, such as alexithymia (or emotional blindness) rather than autism itself.’

This can also present itself differently in young girls with autism as they may hide some signs of autism by copying how other children behave and play, the NHS says. 

Many girls with autism also appear to cope better with social situations, but this could be because they are copying other children. 

‘Although we know there are sex differences in autism, these are not well understood,’ Professor Shah said. 

‘Because the very diagnostic criteria of autism have been shaped mostly by clinical observation of boys, we are still very much learning what autism “looks like” in girls. This will take time. 

WHAT IS AUTISM? 

Autism is a life-long developmental disability, which affects how people act on a wide-ranging spectrum.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autistic people can have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills.

Others can find bright lights or loud noises overwhelming and stressful, or display repetitive behaviours.

Autism is not an illness or disease. 

How common is it?

It is estimated that around 700,000 people, including adults and children, in the UK have an autism diagnosis.

According to a Newcastle University study published in 2021, around one in 57 (1.76 per cent) children in the UK is on the spectrum.

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 5.4million adults, some 2.2 per cent of the population, are autistic.

People from all nationalities and cultural, religious and social backgrounds can have autism.

Rates are up to five times higher in men and boys, though.

The exact reason remains unclear, but some studies suggest boys are at greater risk of the varied genetic causes of autism.

Researchers also believe many girls may be ‘flying under the radar’, as they struggle to get a diagnosis, receive a diagnosis late in life or are misdiagnosed with conditions other than autism.

Are there different types? 

Previously, autism was broken down into different diagnoses, including Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder, Kanner’s syndrome, childhood autism, atypical autism and pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

As each diagnosis shared characteristics of autism, they were replaced with autism spectrum disorder, which is now the umbrella term for the group.

However, some people with a diagnosis of Asperger’s still choose to use the term.

According to the National Autistic Society, people with Asperger’s do not have the learning disabilities that many autistic people have. The NHS says that some people call this ‘high-functioning autism’.

What causes it?

Despite years of research, scientists do not know what causes autism.

Instead, studies have suggested it may develop from a combination of genetic and environmental influences.

Concerns about a possible link between MMR vaccines and autism were raised in the late 1990s.

But numerous scientific studies have since shown that there is no link at all between vaccines — or any of their ingredients — and autism.

Bad parenting is also not a cause.

Source: Mail Online

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