What is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability or difference which relates to how a person communicates and interacts with others, and how they experience the world around them. Autism is a part of the broader neurodiversity family of differences or disabilities which encompasses people with conditions or differences such as ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia, Epilepsy, Tourette’s Syndrome and Dyscalculia.
These different ways of thinking about, processing and understanding the world are called ‘neurotypes’. People who have these differences in thinking are said to be ‘neurodivergent’, as their way of thinking and processing the world can diverge from what society expects, whereas people who don’t have these differences are said to be ‘neurotypical’.
While autistic people are born autistic, it is not something that parents learn when their child is born. As a child grows up, they may begin to show certain signs as they communicate differently to other people, find day-to-day situations stressful or overwhelming and rely on structure and routine in order to manage. This in turn may lead to a person receiving an autism diagnosis.
As a parent, you will be very attuned to your child’s development. But that does not always mean that signs of delay or developmental differences will be obvious to you. It is important to recognise that your child might not always show what is thought of as ‘classic’ signs that they are autistic. For example, sometimes parents might think “my child couldn’t be autistic” because their child is very sociable or makes eye contact. Autistic children learn to ‘mask’ , which means they are able to ‘perform’ behaviour that is deemed to be the social norm. It is important to take note of any slight changes or differences in your child, for example, your child may be conversational but may be delayed in their response or might repeat phrases from their favourite tv shows, movies or songs. If your child has sensory challenges it might be observable in their emotions or anxiety levels in a busy place such as a shopping centre or how they feel about labels of their clothes or wearing certain fabrics for example. If your child has trouble getting to sleep and sleeping through the night, this may be a sign that they might be struggling and need help. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with any aspect of your child’s behaviour, even if they are engaging in behaviours that would not be thought of as ‘typical’ behaviours such as flapping or rocking. Your child’s behaviour serves a function for them and allows them to regulate their environment.
It is also important to remember that autism is genetic, which means that there are a great many undiagnosed autistic parents of autistic children. Sometimes these parents don’t see signs of their child’s autism because it is how they themselves interact, communicate and understand the world.
If you see signs that your child might be autistic, or you are concerned about your child’s development, it is a good idea to talk to somebody. Talking to your GP sooner rather than later will help you on the path to understanding and supporting your child best.
The most important thing to keep in mind with regards to “treatments” is that there should be no treatment which targets autism in general. Autism itself is not something that needs to be “treated.” However, your child may have specific challenges in different areas which they could use some help in. >There are many approaches and forms of support which can help people with autism to manage their condition and fulfil their potential. These include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy.
Unfortunately, there are many ‘treatments’ for autism out there that are not evidence-based and can actually be detrimental to your child’s progression. It is very important that you choose supports or treatments that are credible and provided by credible, accredited professionals.
The first thing to do when you are looking at treatments for your child is to think what is the goal of this treatment? If you are looking to support for your child so that they will behave ‘not autistically’ or more typically then you should scrap this goal. Supporting your autistic child should be about embracing your child’s differences and uniqueness. The goal of seeking supports for your child should be about your child being happier, more engaged and embracing of their identity.
A good way to gage whether a treatment or support will have a positive effect on your child is by looking for feedback from the autistic community. Autistic adults are your best way of understanding the effects of a treatment or support and their past experience of that support is a great way of knowing what supports are ‘right’ or ‘safe’ for your child and which to avoid.
Choosing a support or treatment that is evidence-based is very important, however it is also important to note that just because a treatment is ‘evidence-based’ does not mean that it will suit your child or that it is a good treatment. There are many treatments in the past that would have had a strong evidence base but today these treatments are dismissed. Keep critical of the treatments you are considering for your child. Ensure the person providing the support is fully qualified and accredited. Have a look and see if they are a member of accreditation groups such as the PSI (Psychological Society Ireland), the IACP (Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) or the IASLT (Irish Association for Speech and Language Therapists). Ask in advance of seeing any therapist if they have experience of working with autism and the kinds of strategies and models they use and follow.
Autism, like many other neurodivergent conditions, is an invisible disability which exists on a spectrum. As a result, autistic traits are not universal and are often specific to the person. Autistic adults can go without a diagnosis for years, often well into middle age. This is especially true of women on the spectrum who are prone to ‘masking’ their traits – that is to say, disguising them from their peers.
With the right supports, autistic people can live as independently as anyone else. It is important to stress that given autism’s nature as a spectrum, support needs are often fluid. One autistic adult may live independently but need supports for work. However, this may be the opposite for another.
With the right supports, autistic people can enter the working world. Much like their neurotypical peers this depends on vocation, education and levels of training. Some will work for a few hours on a defined task whereas others may pursue full time work. For autism-specific supports there are organisations such as Specialisterne, AHEAD and Not So Different. These groups assist autistic people in developing the skills to enter the workplace. Additionally, workplaces have legal obligation to provide Reasonable Accommodations. These ensure employees with additional needs are supported their place of work.
No. An intellectual disability is broadly defined as impacting on one’s adaptability and reasoning skills. An autistic person may however be separately diagnosed with an intellectual disability alongside their autism
Autism is typically diagnosed in early childhood, around ages two to three, when children begin to show some of the key traits, as delays in personal development become more noticeable.
Autism is usually diagnosed by a paediatrician or psychologist over a period of time. To access either professional’s services, you will need to ask your GP for a referral. Waiting times are often lengthy and will vary by area, but once you have been successfully referred your case will be reviewed by your Local Health Office’s Autism Team. They will use accredited diagnostic tools throughout the assessment and issue a formal diagnostic report if they believe you are on the autism spectrum.
For more information on the diagnosis process, check our Journey to Diagnosis section here
Autistic children can often become autistic adults without receiving a diagnosis. Increasing number of adults are now seeking assessments. While there is no current public pathway to adult autism assessment, it is still possible to receive one through private practice as seen here.
‘Autism’ is a noun, a name for the autism spectrum and its associated conditions.
‘Autistic’ is usually an adjective used to describe behaviours and challenges linked to autism. It is also used as a noun by several people on the spectrum as means of referring to themselves.
AsIAm have a policy of using identity-first language when referring to individuals on the spectrum as ‘autistic’ rather than as person-first (i.e., ‘person with autism’). Many autistic people see their condition as a positive part of their personal identities and not as a disability. Some may find person-first language clinical and patronising. It’s important to acknowledge this and good practice to ask a person how they would like to be referred to.
Sometimes autistic people experience meltdowns. A meltdown take place when a person receives too much information for the brain to manage, be that communication or sensory stimuli. It may look like somebody becoming extremely upset it may look like somebody becoming aggressive, it may also look like somebody simply shutting down and not being able to engage.
Usually our instinct when we see someone upset we comfort, we talk, we reassure. If we see somebody angry we confront or we challenge. The reality is neither of those are an appropriate response to somebody having an autistic meltdown because when a person has a meltdown their brain is already dealing with too much information so every interaction is adding fuel to the fire. A meltdown is a 90-minute process that takes place in the brain and it isn’t something that can be stopped. The best thing we can do is do the opposite of what we think we should. So we want to make sure the person’s safe and everyone else is safe.
Other than that we shouldn’t talk to the person. If we have to talk to the person it’s one person saying the minimum. What we can do is reduce stimuli, turn off lights turn off music. If the person’s in a public place try and redirect people so people don’t suffer the humiliation of being seen because people are often very embarrassed after a meltdown. But it’s all about less is more and you can talk to the person when they have recovered.
Autistic people, depending on their support needs, may need to work with a number of professionals across their lives. This may be for diagnostic reasons, building self-development skills or gaining self-management skills.
These professionals include Counsellors, Paediatricians, Educational Psychologists, Occupational Therapists, and Speech and Language Therapists.
Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed as autistic than girls are. However, it is not thought that boys are more likely to be autistic. There are a few possible reasons for this mismatch. It is likely that autism is not being recognised in girls as often by communities, families, teachers and doctors because they are not considering it as an option in the first place because they are female. Also, it is likely that the current diagnosis process might be missing key signs in autistic females.
One of the possible explanations for the gender imbalance in autism is that females are thought to be better at masking their neurotypical behaviours than males are. Masking describes the process whereby individuals learn and mimic what is thought to be typical social behaviour. However, it is important to note that often girls are not aware that this is something they are doing, i.e. it is unconscious. Another possible explanation for the gender bias in diagnosis is that sometimes autistic girls might develop strong interests that are considered more ‘typical’ for their gender such as in glitter or horse riding. Additionally, girls might ‘stim’ in a way that is considered to be ‘typical girly behaviour’ such as twirling their hair. It is hugely important that more attention is given to decreasing the gender bias in autism diagnoses as the lack of understanding can have a negative impact on these females lives.
What can happen for girls whose diagnosis goes unnoticed is that the masking can become too much for them. Usually during a girl’s teenage years the increase in hormones and general stress of the adolescent stages of our development can mean it all becomes too much for them. A build up of years and years of masking can lead the individual to a crisis or a breaking point. Sometimes the girl will attend therapy for anxiety, they can often be misdiagnosed with personality disorders but ultimately continue to feel like nothing is adding up for them. Receiving an autism diagnosis can cause a sense of relief for many girls who have spent their lives masking their individuality. An accurate autism diagnosis can bring many positive changes to autistic girls’ lives, including greater understanding of themselves, a positive self-identity and a sense of belonging and community with a group of people who understand them.
Hopefully, as the stigma surrounding autism reduces and our understanding improves, parents and the wider community will become better at recognising the signs in both their sons and their daughters and seek a diagnosis at an earlier stage for their child.
No – it’s been widely disproven that vaccines cause autism in young children’s brains. The Royal College of Physicians in Ireland have conducted an in-depth study on the possible risks of vaccination and found this to be a myth with no medical basis.
Accredited international medical professionals have carried out similar reviews investigating whether there is a connection between autism and vaccines and their results have repeatedly found no link.
For more information, visit the HSE website’s section on FAQs about vaccines.
Neurotypical is a term used to describe people who are not autistic or diagnosed with other neurodivergent conditions. (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia)