Sunday, 5 May 2019

Primary School Age Child - Might They Be Autistic?

Some professionals and parents have been given autism 'checklists' that are 20 years out of date. Not at all useful when trying to make a decision about whether a child needs a diagnostic referral. The checklists were full of language so inappropriate and humiliating for any child that one must hope that there is a push to do an updated list, very fast.Autistic people are of every age, gender, personality type, e.g. extrovert or introvert, and of all ethnicities.  Autism is difference from birth onwards, for life, not a disease or deficit.  There are strengths for many, as well as a need for support with some things, for others.

This is an informal guide, intended to help professionals consider whether a  child may be autistic. 

It is not intended to be used alone, but to help professionals recognise a pattern of differences in social and communication skills, together with intense focus on topics of interest,  differences in sensory processing, and a need for structure and routine. It is important to be working with parents and carers, and asking good questions of the child, either using spoken language or any other preferred communication method for that child.  A decision can then be taken as to whether to refer on for formal diagnosis.

Social Communication:

Autistic children may use social communication in different ways. There may be a different use of eye contact, preferring to look at a person using indirect gaze rather than direct gaze, in order to minimise sensory distraction.  

There may be little or no spoken language, or an unusual tone or accent that doesn’t have another social or cultural explanation.  Speech may have highly focused and technical content on specialist topics.  Some may use repeated phrases as a way to understand content and convey subtle meaning.  Autistic children tend to be direct, and are unworried about social rank and status.

Autistic children may have a different understanding of personal space, and may prefer to stand closer or further away than is the social norm for non-autistic friendship or acquaintanceship. 

Generally autistic children can understand, co-operate and form friendships with other autistic children, but there can be miscommunication between autistic and non-autistic individuals as a result of the social difference, and misunderstanding of autistic moods.  For example others may misinterpret autistic children as angry, when they are using a different tone of voice or volume. Others may also misinterpret autistic distress, meltdown or shutdown as anger or as a direct refusal to co-operate. Meltdown and shutdown are brain events, not choices.  Meltdown may look superficially like a temper tantrum but is entirely out of the control of the child.  Shutdown involves not being able to speak, or possibly move.  Again, out of the control of the child.   

Some non-autistic children may take a fairly instant conscious or unconscious dislike to the autistic child, because of the different social signalling, and refuse to play with them.  Such problematic responses from others are often a significant sign of possible autistic difference.  

Movement and Sound

Autistic children may use body movements, or  repeated noises, to self-regulate, stay focused, and be in touch with their body positioning and balance.  These are called stimming, and are a normal part of autistic life.


Autistic children may need very precise instructions, and may understand phrases and words literally, rather than look for ‘hidden meanings’ or metaphors. 

A different way of playing

In play, autistic children tend to focus on learning one particular skill at a time, and will apply intense dedication to doing so. Getting things right is vital, to most autistic children, which can lead to extreme focus to find answers and improve on things that are not 100% correct.  A specialist mindset, therefore.

A different sensory experience

Autistic children tend to have sensory differences that mean they can be very undersensitive or oversensitive to particular sensory input.  For example, sensitivity to flickering fluorescent lighting, the feel of clothing, odours, tastes, textures or to background noise. Spaces that many other children can cope in can be overwhelming and painful to experience for some autistic children.  Eating and drinking can be a sensory challenge that results in anxiety around food, especially in busy noisy spaces.

A different degree of need for predictable social and sensory situations.

Autistic children prefer known situations and known environments, in order to minimise possible sensory and non-autistic social overload, and therefore may reach a state of great distress if pushed into fast changes. Most can adapt to change if given careful explanation including possible sensory or social hazards ahead.

As stated, this is an informal guide. But it will get people a fairly long way towards identifying possibly autistic children, and getting that good diagnostic advice.