WHEN we decide to have children we never think that our child will be anything but healthy and happy so a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) can really challenge parents and leave them wondering what the future will hold for their child.
In my experience parents can be quite reticent to bring their child for tests because they believe that a label of ASD will mean their child will be treated differently by the myriad systems they have to navigate, such as school and peer group. However, the earlier the diagnosis the better the chance that child has to receive the care and support they will need to flourish.
And it is important to remember that it is a spectrum, which means it ranges from very mild to severe. While ASD is not something your child will be able to live free from they will, with the right supports, be able to acquire important skills needed to successfully manage the wide variety of developmental challenges living with ASD can cause. So spotting the early signs in your child is vital.
ASD can cause a wide range of symptoms, which are normally grouped into three broad categories:
1. Problems and difficulties with social interactions, such as lack of understanding or awareness of other people’s emotions and feelings.
I often hear parents describe how worried they were in the early formative years for their child due to his/her inability to relate to their peer group. It can be very unsettling to watch your child struggle with interpersonal relationships, especially when it comes so easily to other children.
Often a child with ASD will avoid public interactions altogether. This might manifest itself in the school environment. That is why early intervention is crucial. Because a child who is dealing with ASD and does not receive the adequate skills and tools to manage themselves will really struggle as they move into those difficult teenage years.
Parents regularly utter the same guilt-laden words in my clinic: ‘We knew there was something there, but maybe we didn’t want to hear what the test might say.’ Parents can view ASD negatively and that is why they are reluctant to have their child tested.
In my experience, teenagers struggling with ASD often know there is an underlying issue present. In our conversations when I mention ASD I can see the weight lifting off their shoulders, they have googled it themselves and have wondered about whether or not they are on the spectrum. So, when I suggest that they should consult with a clinical psychologist they are relieved, like a weight has been lifted.
They might finally have language to describe what it is they have been dealing with for all these years. A diagnosis can be a very liberating thing for a child. In fact, I have rarely experienced a child’s negative reaction to a diagnosis because a diagnosis means it is not their fault. Children internalise everything and quickly blame themselves so easily. Therefore, a diagnosis removes that.
2. Impaired language and communication skills, such as delayed language development and an inability to start conversations or take part in them properly.
Working in the school system for over 15 years I have seen first hand the challenges that living with ASD brings into a young adults life. Children with ASD can really struggle to make small talk. It can seem completely alien to them, over the years I have observed children on the fringes of their peer group, desperately trying to fit in and be one of ‘the lads’ but it is so forced and strained that the peer group rejects them.
It is heartbreaking to watch a child struggle like this and much of the work I do with children with ASD is mentoring. Showing them how to interact so it seems natural and not contrived or laboured. We all want to fit in. But it doesn’t come naturally to some of us, especially children with ASD. So they need help, and if they are left undiagnosed they will struggle their entire life. And it really doesn’t have to be like that.
3. Unusual patterns of thought and physical behaviour.
This includes making repetitive physical movements, such as hand tapping or twisting.The child develops set routines of behaviour, which can upset the child if they are broken. This can place a considerable strain on the entire family, as certain patterns of behaviour have to be constantly replicated in order for the child to feel comfortable and safe.
Children have so much to deal with as they move into adulthood. If your child is labouring with any of the symptoms I have described, hopefully it is nothing too serious, but it is important that you have your child tested.
A diagnosis of ASD does not mean your child will never be able to live a normal healthy life, but they just might need help understanding aspects of their life that those without ASD take for granted.