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Understanding and coping with autism

Mar 27, 2020 | Discover Our Blog, Discover Our Learning Disabilities Blog

Boy with autism

To mark World Autism Awareness Week during the first week of April in 2020, SweetTree has compiled some facts about autism and useful coping strategies.

According to the National Autistic Society, autism affects more than 1 in 100 people in the UK. Over 700,000 people in the UK are autistic. It’s a myth that people grow out of autism in adult life – they may develop coping strategies that make it less obvious but it’s a lifelong condition and there is no cure.

In the US, boys are almost five times more likely to have autism than girls. More boys than girls show signs of autism.

Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie were all thought to have shown signs of Asperger’s syndrome, which is at the milder end of the autism spectrum.

Some children with autism may grow up to live independently, while others may live semi-independently with support from family and social services.

What is autism?

Autism comes from two Greek words ‘aut’ which means ‘self’, and ‘ism’ which means ‘state’. It’s used to define a person who is unusually absorbed in him or herself. The word ‘spectrum’ is used to indicate that there is a wide variation in behaviour in a person with autism, from mild to severe. The condition effects every aspect of a person’s life.

Children with autism normally have difficulty using language to communicate with parents and other children. They may also have difficulty developing relationships with others and may lack awareness of others or be reluctant to maintain contact with others. They may not make eye contact. They may prefer to play alone and perform activities repetitively.

Two types of autism are referred to:

Classic autism – This is present when children show all three of the above characteristics, i.e. difficulty using language to communicate, difficulty developing relationships and a preference for playing alone. It is considered the more severe end of the spectrum.

Asperger’s syndrome – With Asperger’s syndrome, a child may develop more normally but, despite a good vocabulary, may struggle with flow of speech and may sound stilted. They may also struggle to recognise when others become bored or frustrated with a certain topic and may continue anyway with the conversation. They may also make comments that may sound hurtful, such as pointing out that a person is overweight or unattractive without realising this is socially unacceptable. Asperger’s is the milder end of the spectrum.

Causes of autism are not fully understood but it is thought that children are born with it. There is no evidence to suggest it is linked to environmental factors or development in the womb, nor difficulties at birth.

Possible signs of autism in a child can include:

  • Failure to develop spoken language at an appropriate age
  • Difficulty communicating with others
  • Repeating the same words or phrases, sometimes at the wrong time
  • Failing to make eye contact easily or not using facial expressions appropriately, such as smiling when happy
  • Unable to develop relationships with other children of the same age
  • Unable to share activities or interests with other children
  • Unwilling to participate in activities with other children
  • Tendency to play alone for long periods of time
  • Insists on having the same routine or habits, such as repeatedly wearing the same clothes or watching the same videos
  • Over-interested in part of an object rather than the whole object

Treatment for autism

There are no specific medications to treat autism but drugs may be used to control the symptoms. Ritalin is a drug used to help with concentration. Educational programmes and awareness among those caring for an autistic child may be more useful for managing the condition.

Behavioural programmes may help and the earlier a programme is started the better. Programmes vary and usually involve exercises that result in rewards for things like a child achieving eye contact or interacting with their parent in some way.

Strategies for coping with autism:

  • Learn as much as you can about the condition so that you can develop a better understanding of how it affects a loved one. For instance, be aware that noisy or busy environments with lots of people around can cause a person with autism or Asperger’s syndrome to experience anxiety. The person may also be sensitive to bright lights and may cover their ears when noise becomes too much. Try to keep a calm environment that’s not too busy.
  • Seek out support groups and parent network organisations so that you can share ideas and experiences with others in similar situations
  • When you are caring for an autistic child showing challenging behaviour, firstly bear in mind there are reasons for the behaviour. Changes in routine, difficulty processing information, feelings of not being able to communicate can all cause challenging behaviour.
  • Keep a diary of behaviour which documents what is going on before, during or after the child’s outburst or difficult behaviour so that you might be able to identify the reasons for it and make some changes.
  • Speak to the child clearly and in short sentences. Limit your communication with them so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • In social situations, let others know that a person with autism may say things that may sound inappropriate.
  • When they do something well, or behave well, offer lots of praise, even if it’s only for something minor.
  • Take time out to pursue your own hobbies and interests to give yourself an occasional break from caring.
  • Make sure you are getting all the help and support you need. The National Autistic Society has a Parent to Parent line on 0808 800 4106 to provide emotional support to parents and carers of children with autism. Request a social care needs assessment and for yourself as a carer. You may be entitled to respite care and a support from an outreach team.