Ultimate guide to autism

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong condition, which has a detrimental effect on certain areas of development. Autism is usually diagnosed in young children and is more common in boys than girls. Autism affects three main areas of development, including social skills, communications skills and the development of the imagination. Most people with autism are diagnosed before the age of three.

What are the symptoms of autism?

Many people with autism are very intelligent and there are no physical symptoms of the disorder. However, autistic people struggle with social interaction and often find it confusing and frightening to be surrounded by large crowds of people. People with autism often find it difficult to interact with other people and understand their emotions and feelings. People with autism tend to like routine and some are very particular. Autistic people are also resistant to change and like their environment to stay the same.

Symptoms of autism in young babies include unresponsiveness, a lack of facial expressions, no recognition of voices or familiar sounds and a lack of interest in communication and face to face contact. Symptoms in older children include a lack of interest in playing, delayed speech, a lack of awareness of pain, unusual, exaggerated reactions to noise and lights, a lack of desire to interact and play with other children and the development of repetitive actions or behaviour, such as clicking their fingers and rocking backwards and forwards.

How common is autism?

Autistic spectrum disorders are more than common than many people would think. Autism affects more than 500,000 people in the UK and 1 in 100 children have an autistic spectrum disorder. In recent years, the number of cases has increased but this does not necessarily mean that the condition is becoming more common. It may just be down to the fact that the condition is being recognised and diagnosed more than in the past.

What causes autism?

Research into the causes of autism is ongoing, as there is a great deal of uncertainty as to what actually causes autism. 90 percent of cases of autism are classed as primary, meaning that there is no underlying health condition that has contributed to autism. The remaining 10 percent of cases may be linked to health conditions, which cause symptoms of autism, including Rett Syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and Tuberous sclerosis.

Research into primary autism has revealed four possible factors, which may cause primary autism, including environmental factors, genetics, psychological factors and neurological factors.

Is there a cure for autism?

There is no cure for autism but many people manage to live a normal, fulfilled life. There is no miracle treatment but autism but people are much more aware of the condition nowadays and there are ways in which the condition can be managed. Many people with autism receive help and support in a variety of different ways and this help enables them to be as independent as possible.


In most cases, parents are the first people to raise concerns about their child’s development and behaviour, as symptoms tend to become visible after the age of 12 months. Some people with very mild symptoms may not be diagnosed until later in life but most cases are diagnosed between the ages of one and three years old.

Going to the GP

At your consultation with the GP, your GP will ask you questions about your child’s behaviour and observe your child for a short period of time. They may carry out tests, such as blood tests and a hearing test to rule out health conditions or hearing problems. If your child is pre-school age, they may carry out a basic screening test known as CHAT (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers), which consists of a series of questions relating to your child’s behaviour, their habits and their interaction with you or with other children. Your GP may also spend time with your child and carry out some basic tests to see how they interact with other people and whether they engage in imaginative or pretend play.

If the results of the CHAT indicate that the child may have autism, the GP will refer the child to a health professional with experience in autism. This may be a child psychiatrist, a psychologist or a paediatrician.

The assessment process

The assessment process is rigorous and involves a number of different stages. You will be asked to provide detailed information about your family history, your child’s medical history, their behaviour and their development. Parents are asked to attend interviews and records and information may be obtained from agencies that have cared for the child, such as a nursery or pre-school.

Your child will also be asked to attend a series of appointments so that the specialist can observe their behaviour and carry out specific tests, which are designed to assess specific skills and traits; this is known as focused observation.

Your child will also undergo physical tests to test for genetic conditions which are known to cause symptoms of autism, such as Fragile X syndrome and Rett syndrome.

After diagnosis

Everyone who is diagnosed with ASD will be referred to a specialist team, who will cater for all aspects of the individual’s care. The team will be made up of a variety of different health professionals, who work alongside educational specialists, social services and parents and carers.


There is no cure for autism. However, there are many treatments and therapies which can be used to help people live independent and fulfilling lives. There are several different intervention programmes, which are specialist educational and behavioural programmes, as well as treatments, including medication. Interventions are designed to deal with specific areas of difficulty associated with autism: these include communication skills, academic learning, cognitive skills and social skills.


Examples of therapies used to treat people with autism include:

  • Behavioural therapy; known as Applied Behavioural Analysis
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Pre-school training; this usually involves an intensive programme, which prepares children for school
  • Occupational therapy
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Early Bird programme: this is designed for pre-school children
  • TEACCH: this is a programme that focuses on learning through visual prompts


Medication cannot be used to treat autism as a condition, but it can be used to treat specific symptoms, such as aggressive behaviour and repetitive thoughts and actions. The most common form of medication used to treat people with autism is the antidepressant known as SSRI (serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

Alternative therapies

Research shows that most parents of autistic children have tried alternative therapies, such as special diets, vitamin supplements and anti-fungal medication. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that any of these methods work.

Diagnosing autism

If you suspect that your child has autism or you notice signs that their development is unusual or you notice that they do not respond to you or show an interest in playing or interacting with other people, arrange to see your GP. Your GP will also you questions about your child and their behaviour and they will observe your child. They may also carry out some tests, such as hearing tests, to rule out any other health problems or concerns. If your child is pre-school age, your GP will probably carry out a test known as the CHAT test; this stands for Checklist for Autism in Toddlers. If your GP suspects that your child has an autistic spectrum disorder, they will refer your child for further tests and this usually involves a number of different healthcare professionals, including psychologists, paediatricians, child psychiatrists, speech therapists and specialist teachers.

If your child is diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, they will be assigned a key worker, who will work with you and your child and offer additional help and support.

Early intervention and help

Most cases of autism are diagnosed within the first three years and a treatment plan is then drawn up. Although there is no cure, there are ways of managing autism and many people live a normal life with the help and support of carers, health workers, friends and relatives.

Many people with autism experience problems with social skills and communication and initiatives and support are in place to help people develop these skills and feel more comfortable in social situations. Many children with autism attend regular schools and there is support available to give them additional help with their studies, help with social integration and integration and help with participating in all areas of school life.

Treatment for children

Although there is no cure for autism, there are a large number of treatments and therapies which can be used to promote independence and teach children valuable skills. Examples of treatments for children include:

  • Pre-school training to prepare children for school
  • Speech therapy to help children communicate
  • Picture Exchange programme
  • Behavioural therapy
  • Early Bird programme for pre-school children
  • Occupational therapy to help children manage in different environments
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Help at school

Children with autism are offered additional support at school. They are given help with academic work, as well as emotional support to help them deal with the school environment and encourage them to interact with other children and build relationships. Teachers will often work alongside educational specialists and parents to ensure children get the best possible support.

A number of initiatives have been introduced by local authorities, educational departments, charities and government departments. Some of the most influential initiatives are outlined below:

The National Autism Plan for Children

The National Autism Plan for Children is a report, which was compiled by National Autistic Society, in conjunction with the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and was published in 2003. The plan addresses important subjects, such as the identification and diagnosis of autism, the treatment and management of the condition and early intervention protocol. The plan also contains guidelines for staff training for those who are dealing with children and adults with autistic spectrum disorders, assessment guidelines for people with signs and symptoms of autism and recommendations for treatment and therapies.

The Autism Act 2009

The Autism Act was passed last year. It had two key provisions, the first that the government would produce a detailed adult autism strategy by the end of 2010 and the second that the Health Secretary would issue guidelines for local government to support the needs of adults with autism.

The Adult Autism Strategy

The Adult Autism Strategy is due to be introduced in the near future. The aim of the plan is to enable professionals from across the public sector to work together to facilitate employment for adults with autism and to allow people with autism to live independently.

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