Symptoms of autism

The important issue to remember with autism symptoms is that they vary between individuals. Some people will exhibit most if not all of these symptoms whereas other people will display fewer signs. Plus the severity of these symptoms also varies between people.

If you are the parent of a child who you suspect has autism then you will be particularly interested in knowing what these symptoms are so that you can recognise them in your own child.

These symptoms will depend upon the age of your child.

With adults, they will exhibit some of the symptoms experienced by children but are also likely to suffer from three areas of difficulty or the ’triad of impairments’.

These impairments are discussed further on in this section.

This section looks at:

  • Autism symptoms in babies
  • Autism symptoms in older children
  • Autism symptoms in adults
  • Triad of impairments
  • Order and routine
  • Sensory hyper/hypo sensitivity
  • Obsessive interest
  • Learning difficulties

Autism symptoms in babies

A baby or very young infant will display some or all of the following symptoms of autism:

  • Excessive crying or screaming fits
  • Inability to sleep
  • Rocking motions or banging their head against the side of their cot.
  • Colicky
  • Excessive dribbling/drooling
  • Does not maintain eye contact
  • No interest in a parent
  • Dislikes physical touch, e.g. cuddling
  • Unable to crawl

Autism symptoms in older children

An older child may experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Poor balance and/or co-ordination
  • Clumsiness
  • Difficulty in walking, running, climbing etc
  • Self harming
  • Temper tantrums
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • High IQ but has problems at school
  • Bedwetting
  • Impatient and demanding. Unable to finish a task
  • Poor motor skills. e.g. unable to kick a ball or fasten a button
  • Risk taking/impulsive: unable to comprehend the consequences of their actions.
  • Prone to health problems, e.g. gastrointestinal upsets
  • Isolated and withdrawn
  • Difficulty in mixing with other children
  • Over developed senses which makes them highly sensitive to sounds, smells, textures and taste. Prone to sensory overload.
  • Prefers playing with toys or objects to being with people
  • Has an intense fixation with an object or an obsessive hobby
  • Prefers a structured, ordered routine

The main problem is that of interacting with other people and the world around them. Humans are social animals who naturally enjoy the company of others and our society is geared towards that.

This is why it is important that the autistic person learns how to communicate with other people and to make sense of the often complex social mores of our society. This can be a minefield and even more so to the autistic person.

Autism symptoms in adults

These usually affect social and communication skills. This is where they are likely to be noticed especially in social situations such as the workplace or out and about.

Examples of these include:

  • Problems with motor skills, e.g. clumsiness
  • Unable to start or join in on a conversation
  • Unable to follow a conversation or understand the nuances
  • Inability to pick up on non-verbal cues and body language
  • Cannot detect if sarcasm, jokes or irony is being used in a conversation.
  • Make invade personal body space without realising it
  • Able to discuss a particular subject but cannot ask another person to do the same.
  • Lack of empathy
  • Poor time keeping
  • Prefers routines and hates change
  • Inappropriate behaviour
  • Aggressive or emotionally immature
  • Obsessive
  • Exceptional ability in a particular area, e.g. art
  • Often prefers to work on their own or activities which do not require human interaction.

Another symptom is that of an over or under developed sensory sensitivity which mean that they find it difficult to cope with a range of stimuli. For example, being in a shopping centre with its bright lights, loud music and bustling crowds.

Triad of impairments

These are the three main categories of symptoms common to all types of autism.

They include:

  • Difficulty in socially interacting with others
  • Difficulty in communicating with others
  • Difficulty in using their imagination

Difficulty in socially interacting with others

This includes a lack of awareness of the thoughts and feelings of other people and an inability to empathise with another person or person.

If this applies to you then you may have noticed how awkward it is to express or share emotions with others or to offer moral support. You may not notice that you have invaded someone’s’personal space’or have introduced a topic of conversation which may be considered inappropriate.

Many autistic people often prefer their own company and will avoid social situations, such as parties because they find it too much to deal with or are unsure how to strike up a conversation with others.

As a parent, you may find that your child prefers his/her own company or would rather stay indoors than play with other children. The other possibility is that your child is excluded from games and activities by his/her peers due to a failure to understand the unwritten rules.

For example, learning about taking turns in a game or sharing a toy with other children. Your child may prefer to stay inside and play on their computer or draw which is a solitary and easier to handle activity.

Difficulty in communicating with others

This includes being unable to read body language or verbal cues or engage in a free and easy conversation. There are numerous verbal and non-verbal signs which we learn as time goes on but can be a minefield for the autistic person.

A major problem is that of literal and non-literal language as part of conversation. We understand that people will use sarcasm, humour or irony as part of a conversation which is often a commentary on what has been said.

Another aspect is the use of slang or other expressions during the conversation which are confusing to someone with autism.

You and I understand what these expressions and why they have been used. Plus we know what the correct responses are, such as laughing if someone has delivered a punchline or funny aside as part of the conversation.

But the autistic person has a literal interpretation of language and is unable to distinguish between humour and seriousness. They will not notice that something has been said in a sarcastic undertone or that they are required to laugh at a funny comment. The use of metaphor is another aspect which baffles them.

Plus the secret of a good conversation is alternating between listening and talking. A conversation should flow between two people, with comments being thrown in at intervals to maintain the flow and to show that both parties understand what is being said.

However, someone with autism fails to understand this flow and will either talk about what they have been doing or will repeat what has already been said. If their speech is limited then they will resort to alternatives such as sign language.

Difficulty in using their imagination

This does not mean that the autistic person has no imagination as many sufferers are highly creative and capable of producing some outstanding works of art.

What it does mean however is that they tend to stay within their own worlds and are unable to comprehend other people’s thoughts and actions.

They find change frightening and prefer to stick to the same familiar routines. If something new occurs or suddenly arises which throws them out of their routine then they are often unable to cope with this.

There is an inability to imagine what might happen next and how they would deal with it. Repetition and constancy are preferred to variety and intermittency.

Order and routine

A common feature of autism is the need for routine. An autistic person finds it difficult to cope with change or spontaneous events which many other people enjoy.

They find it difficult to comprehend the world around them and use routines as a way of making sense of everything. Plus they act as a form of reassurance.

This sense of continuity is very important to someone with autism who needs rules to function on a day to day level. They feel safe and know what will happen next.

But any change to their routine disturbs them and can cause feelings of stress or anxiety. They do not like the unexpected but can be taught to cope with this by means of behavioural interventions.

This also applies to a predicted change to their routine. For example, if an autistic person catches the same bus at the same time each day, as a means of getting to work then what happens if there is a change in the bus timetable?

This is a ’predicted change’ which would normally be upsetting to an autistic person but they can be shown how to deal with this if prepared for this change in advance. They need to be reassured that doing so is not a ’bad’ thing and is a normal part of life.

Sensory hyper/hypo sensitivity

This refers to overactive/underactive senses: many people with autism find that their senses are either highly sensitive or under-developed which can be distressing.

So, any form of sensory stimulus such as a sound, smell or texture can be overwhelming to an autistic person. They find it discordant or unpleasant and react by exhibiting repetitive hand or body movements.

Examples of this include loud noises, a strong smell or an item of clothing which has a distinctive texture. This is further intensified if they are in an environment where they are bombarded by various forms of sensory input.

They often have problems with spatial/bodily awareness. They find it difficult to gauge how near or far they are to objects which often results in clumsiness or breaching social boundaries.

Obsessive interest

This is a particular feature of people with high functioning autism. They tend to develop an intense interest in a particular hobby, subject or even a household object, e.g. vacuum cleaner.

This intense fixation often starts in childhood and continues throughout their life. They may stay with the same hobby or change to another interest later on in life. But what doesn’t change is the level of intensity.

This becomes an obsession to the exclusion of all else. If they are fortunate they may be able to convert this interest into a career, for example, a fixation with computers may lead to a job in computer science.

A common theme is an intense focus on data: this can be dates, times, numbers etc. But whatever it is it exerts a strong fascination on the autistic person who is able to recollect this at any time of the day. They often have strong powers of memory and can store prodigious amounts of information.

So, they may be better suited to careers which involve facts, figures or logic. Where they do struggle is with subjects that require lateral thinking or abstract thought.

Learning difficulties

Some autistic people have learning difficulties which means that they will require help and support although this depends upon the level of disability.

For example, learning to cook, handle money or using public transport can be fraught with danger for someone with autism although there are strategies to deal with this.

This help and support can range from being shown how to do these tasks, such as shopping or cooking a meal, through to 24 hour residential care. There are autistic people who can function in society with minimal assistance and others who require permanent, full time care.

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