How do you spot the early signs of autism? Unlike most other reasonably common medical conditions there is no diagnostic test (blood or brain scan) or even a complete checklist of symptoms to indicate a child may be diagnosed with an autistic condition at a later stage.
And in the case of the checklist it's because the autistic spectrum is so wide - thus so too is the list of symptoms. However, there are 'common symptoms' - such as difficulties with speech and socialising, as well as sensory irregularities - which we'll go on to outline in more detail later in this article.
In the meantime, autism can roughly be divided into two forms – autism and Asperger syndrome (the latter being a highly-functioning form of the former). And, of course, even within these definitions there are wide variations in the condition; you may, for instance, have heard of Savant Syndrome where the individual is considered extraordinarily talented – even a genius - in particular fields such as music, maths or art.
Savant Syndrome as a Form of Asperger Syndrome
Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond in the film Rainman first brought the condition into millions of living rooms via the TV screen when he correctly guessed ball game statistics and memorised huge chunks of the phone directory.
More recently, the character Sheldon, in the US comedy series The Big Bang Theory gives more insight into the condition. A senior theoretical physicist and former child prodigy, he solves problems none of his peers can ever hope to, and yet he rarely picks up on social cues.
It's reckoned, however, that only around 10 per cent of individuals diagnosed on as having autistic spectrum behaviour (ASB) have a 'genius' ability.
General Shared Symptoms for Autism and Asperger Syndrome
In the main though, certain behaviours a child displays can be indicative of the early signs of autism and can alert a nursery teacher, work colleague or a good friend to suggest to the parents that it might be an idea to have their child tested for the condition (usually after the age of three). This can be done privately or via the NHS and involves an assessment from three medical professionals – a speech and language therapist, psychologist and physiotherapist. The sooner an autistic condition is identified, the more successful therapy will prove.
The Early Signs of Autism and Asperger Syndrome
The symptoms of both autism and Asperger syndrome are similar and include such behaviour traits as:
- Avoiding eye contact with others
- Rarely using gestures or other forms of non-verbal communication and also failing to pick up on them
- A lack of pointing. Often babies and toddlers who don't point at what they want or pick up toys etc to show adults, later develop autistic traits.
- Preferring to play alone with puzzles than engaging in creative or imaginative play – such as dressing up - with peers
- Becoming upset when the day-to-day routine is disrupted and feeling better when daily life is structured
- Playing the same games or carrying out the same action over and over again i.e. displaying repetitive behaviour
- Being sensitive to loud noises or not eating a particular colour or texture of food, such as red jelly or green mushy peas
- Doesn't like being cuddled or even touched in general, such as hand-holding
- Doesn't respond to his or her name when called (in toddlers it's often because their speech and learning isn't advanced enough for them to recognise their name)
Just because a child displays one or even two of the above symptoms, it doesn't mean that he or she has the early signs of autism. Doctors and specialists tend to diagnose autism when there are a handful and more of such traits and when this has been confirmed by at least one specialist.
More Boys Than Girls are Diagnosed with Autism and Asperger Syndrome
Interestingly, far more boys than girls are diagnosed with autism but many in the field believe this is mainly because girls are better at what they call 'masking their condition' i.e. they copy what others do in the same situation even though their response isn't 'natural' for them.
Another indicator a child may have an autistic condition is because a brother or sister may already have been diagnosed. In fact, a 2011 study showed that this was the case in as many as 19% of children with autism in the UK.
Therapy Works Best with Early Diagnosis of Autism
The reason it's important to spot the early signs of autism and get an early diagnosis is because autism is what doctors refer to as a 'developmental condition'. In other words, a child with autism tends not to reach his or her speech, play and other cognitive markers at the same rate as their peers. This means that the longer it takes for a child with autism to be diagnosed, the more likely they are to get left behind in the classroom and at games. This makes it harder for them to catch up and more likely to increase their isolation and sense of 'otherness' as they develop through life.
Thankfully, these days health professionals and teachers are far more 'switched on' to spotting the early signs of autism in youngsters; to the extent that the last couple of decades have seen a huge increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism and Asperger syndrome. And now that the condition is well and truly on the map, hopefully this ongoing vigilance – as well as further research into the condition - looks set to continue well into the future.