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Toddler Health A-Z: The Signs And Symptoms Of Autism And Asperger’s Syndrome

Find out how you can spot the signs and symptoms of autism, and what you can do to manage the condition

Autism is a developmental condition that can affect boys and girls. In the last 30 years, the number of children and adults who are diagnosed with autism has increased, largely thanks to an increased understanding of the symptoms. Traditionally, more boys are affected than girls, although it's thought this is because girls are underdiagnosed because they are better at masking symptoms.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. ‘This means that your child can have certain difficulties but to varying degrees,’ says Dr Judith Flood, a clinical psychologist and director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre. ‘Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have other learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.’

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them. ‘This means your child could have difficulty with social communication, interaction and imagination,’ says Judith.

The condition is often associated with a need for rigidity and repetition. Your little one will want to control life through structure and routine.

"Your child could have difficulty with social communication, interaction and imagination"

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Aspergers is part of the autism spectrum. ‘People with Asperger’s have similar problems to those with autism, but tend to be of average or above average intelligence and have fewer verbal problems,’ says Judith. ‘People with Asperger’s syndrome can find it harder to read the social signals that most of us take for granted such as gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice and struggle with social cues.’

What are the symptoms of autism?

Spotting the signs of autism can vary because every child is different.

‘In young children and toddlers, some of the typical signs are not wanting to be with other children, not sharing toys or interests with others, being overly aggressive and having no interest in imaginative play such as dressing up,’ says Judith. ‘Sometimes language development will be delayed, although once your toddler starts talking, his verbal skills will take off very quickly.’

Your little one may be obsessive about lining things up, collecting items or having a very strict personal routine. ‘Older children may struggle with jokes and the subtlety of sarcasm,’ says Judith. ‘However, children with autism will enjoy slapstick and obvious humour.’

Another key issue that children with autism suffer from is sensory sensitivity. ‘Your toddler may hate loud noises or not enjoy being touched, or even cuddled, which can be heartbreaking for many mums,’ says Judith.

"Your little one may be obsessive about lining things up, collecting items or having a very strict personal routine"

How is autism diagnosed?

The only way to diagnose autism is by taking a full development history. ‘There are no biological markers, brain scan or blood test that can pick up the condition,’ says Judith. ‘However, a successful and speedy diagnosis is reliant on you or your partner picking up on problems with your toddler or child, and your GP to recognise symptoms and provide the right referral.’

Mums often admit that they can tell from quite early on that their little one is different, so it’s important to bring it up with your GP if you’re worried.

‘Once your toddler or child is referred – hopefully to a child development centre – he’ll have his development history taken and receive a full assessment from a speech and language specialist, psychologist and physiotherapist,’ says Judth.

What is the treatment for autism?

There is no one specific method of treating your child if he has autism as it depends on each individual case. ‘However, many autistic children respond best when brought up in a structured environment where they can play to their strengths and have their weaknesses supported,’ says Judith.

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