Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a range of similar conditions that can affect social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder with a biological basis that is present at birth – children affected by autism can show characteristics before they are three, and parents may recognise from an early stage that something is wrong in their child’s social or language development.
In early infancy, some children with ASD don’t babble or use other vocal sounds. Older children have problems using non-verbal behaviours to interact with others – for example, they have difficulty with eye contact, facial expressions, body language and gestures. They may give no or brief eye contact and ignore familiar or unfamiliar people.
Children with ASD can also lack awareness of and interest in other children. They can find it hard to understand other people's emotions and feelings, and have difficulty starting or joining in with conversations. Language development may also be delayed.
In addition to impairment in social interaction skills, language and communication abilities, children or young people with autism may also exhibit unusual behaviours including restricted interests, resistance to change, rituals and unusual movements.
Experiences of autism can vary widely, but this video from the National Autistic Society shows more about what it can be like to be autistic as a child:
Some estimates put the proportion of boys on the autistic spectrum as high as 1%, and the condition is four times as high in boys as girls.
Children and young people with ASD frequently experience a range of cognitive (thinking), learning, emotional and behavioural problems. For example, they may also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression.
Diagnosing ASD can be a lengthy process. If you are concerned that your child may have symptoms of ASD you should approach your GP in the first instance. Depending on your child’s individual presentation, your GP will refer either to a community paediatrician or, where additional mental health difficulties are identified, to CAMHS.
Specific support for parents of children with autism includes groups providing both theoretical and practical support to help understand and manage difficulties experienced by families affected by autism.
There is also a CAMHS ASD pathway practitioner who can support parents of the child being assessed through ASD workshops, signposting to supportive charities and local agencies such as Autism Wessex and the National Autistic Society, as well as offering telephone support whilst the child is undergoing the diagnostic process.
There are lots of resources available online that provide more information and support on ASD, including:
Autism Wessex - local support for anyone with autism
NHS - comprehensive information about autism, including symptoms and diagnosis
National Autistic Society - the UK's largest provider of specialist autism services
Child Autism - support, advice and services for children with autism
Helpline: 01344 882248
MindEd - free educational resource that includes training on autism