It might be argued that to point out some indicators that autism is present in a child is subjecting them to stereotyping. However, it cannot be denied that there are some specific signs that a child starts to experience from a young age, which does mean that a diagnosis of autism might be pertinent.
Some of the indicators may be more obvious or more subtle in some children and this is why sometimes, parents may worry that their child is autistic when, in fact, they are just showing signs of normal behaviour for their age group. For example, at a younger age, it is more common for children to engage in solitary play where they are not interested in playing with anyone else. If this trait continues as they get older though, this may be one specific indicator that a child is autistic but would never be the only reason why autism was diagnosed, as it is a condition that takes into account many different characteristics.
What are the early signs of autism?
- Delayed speech development.
- Not responding when their name is called.
- Not showing interest in things.
- Little or no eye contact.
- Preferring to be alone.
- Difficulties understanding what others are saying.
- Repeating the same words or phrases consistently.
- Distress at even minor changes to a routine.
- Poor social awareness.
- Little understanding of danger.
- Rocking, spinning and hand flapping.
It is really important to note that not all children will have all of these signs and it is very easy to apply them flippantly, which should be avoided.
Other signs of autism
Other signs of autism, which may occur slightly later (from around age three onwards) may include:
- Unusual and obsessive interests.
- Extreme anxiety.
- Very short attention span.
- Unusual sleeping patterns.
- Self-injurious behaviors.
- Unusual eating habits.
- Dislike of certain colours, tastes, temperatures, lights, noise and crowds.
Social interactions can also identify signs of autism such as:
- Poor awareness of personal space.
- No interest in interacting with others of a similar age.
- Speaking with no notion of the consequences and so may cause offence unintentionally.
- Lack of awareness of non-verbal communication cues.
- Avoidance of eye contact.
- Speaking over another person.
- Taking words literally and having no understanding of sarcasm or irony.
- Walking away when an interaction is taking place.
Recognising how autism can affect learning
- Communication: Both adults and children with autism are known to sometimes need information to be communicated to them in alternative ways in order to facilitate understanding. It can be difficult sometimes for individuals to have their communication needs met and this may result in frustration and disengagement from the curriculum. Additionally, it is not just accessing learning through communication that causes a problem, many children and adults who live with autism also find following directions and understanding what has been asked of them to be difficult as well.
- Social interaction: Being able to interact with others is an essential part of learning but children and adults with autism can find social interaction to be extremely difficult. Asking children to interact with others when they do not want to can be a distressing experience for them, meaning that that they miss out on peer interaction which can be useful in enabling them to learn from others not just socially but academically as well.
- Learning disabilities: Children and adults with autism are more likely to experience a coexisting learning disability, than children and adults who are not autistic. Having a learning disability means that a person’s intellect is affected, which means that as a result, learning does become more difficult.
- Learning difficulties: Unlike a learning disability, a learning difficulty does not affect a child or adult’s intellect. However, it can affect their ability to learn because it can interfere with literacy and numeracy skills, which makes the curriculum more difficult to access. Again, individuals who live with autism are more likely than the general population to have a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia.
- Fixations: Children and adults who find it difficult to have changes to their routine may struggle with learning because they become anxious about any changes to the learning environment. This may be something as simple as having to change classrooms or something as significant as moving to a different school. Children who lack social imagination may be less inclined to learn about topics which do not interest to them, which means that their ability to learn about a variety of subjects becomes very restricted.
- Anxiety: When a person experiences anxiety it is very difficult for them to concentrate on anything else. Individuals who are autistic may be anxious about changes to their routine and this can distract them from learning. Individuals who live with autism are also susceptible to mental health disorders which are anxiety based, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders, both of which have the potential to affect their mental and physical health making them less able to learn.
- Physiological associations with autism: Many adults and children on the autism spectrum experience sleep disturbances and some of them have a restricted diet due to sensory issues. These can both cause difficulties with physical health, which may make them tired and lethargic and therefore less able to learn. Dietary issues can also cause physical health problems such as constipation, which can also distract away from learning.