I am often asked the question: “What does autism look like” or “How can I tell if a child has autism” and the simple answer to those questions is “You can’t”. Because autism doesn’t have a particular ‘look’ but is detected by observing behaviours NOT appearance.
Autism is often referred to as the silent disability because there is no wheelchair or defining facial features to help identify it at first glance.
But if you know what you’re looking for – its not as difficult to recognise as you might think. It’s important to me to share this because the more that society is taught about differences – the greater the acceptance and tolerance levels toward children and adults on the spectrum for the future generations. So I are condensed a lot of information here into ten short points that may indicate an autism spectrum disorder.
The first rule of thumb in possibly identifying autism is;
ALWAYS GIVE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT.
Whenever you see a child who appears to be odd or quirky or if their behaviour is not quite right-even if you can’t put your finger on the possible reason or see any other indicators of a disability, assume that there is more to the situation than meets the eye.
For example: If you see an older child having a tantrum in public then it’s usually safe to assume that there is something else going on here. Generally, kids are too embarrassed to pitch a full blown tantrum past the ages of 5 because they have enough self-awareness to know that people will stare at them. But not in the autistic child because often they are simply unable to contain their emotional and sensory overload and it is no longer a matter of choosing whether or not to hold it in.
That’s not to say that older children don’t have tantrums, but in an older child, a tantrum in public is usually much more subtle. These tantrums are designed to get their own way without attracting attention to themselves. Like kicking a shop display, or mumbling insults under their breath or sulking and refusing to do what they’re told. But not flailing and screaming in front of dozens of onlookers.
And in an autistic child, what may start as a silly little tantrum can quickly escalate into a full blown meltdown if they are unable to make themselves understood. Usually something has triggered this tantrum and if its not nipped in the bud it can get really messy really fast. Autistic children cannot control these meltdowns and are unaware that they are causing a scene and giving into them wouldn’t end the yelling whereas in a tantrum – it would.
But back to spotting autism….
Let’s imagine that you are in a playground and you know that there is an autistic child playing in there but have no idea which one it is. What would be the first clue that you would look for?
For me, spotting that child would be as simple as looking for the one who seems to be on the outer.
1. BEING ALOOF:
The child who either plays alone or is trailing along behind the other kids desperately wanting to be included. It’s often wrongly assumed that autistic kids don’t care for other kids but often it’s just their underdeveloped social skills and lack of social intuition that are holding them back. Most of the time they desperately want friends but don’t know how to initiate conversations or interact with other children. These kids don’t read body language or facial expressions and may not understand if another child gives them the ‘leave me alone’ face. Children on the autism spectrum learn by mimicking their typically developing peers and you would be looking for the child who is ‘following’ rather than leading the group.
However – in some of the higher functioning children (Aspergers Syndrome especially) the child may actually be the ‘life of the party’ and come across as obnoxious, precocious, loud, inflexible and unreasonable. But it’s important to remember that this is not a character flaw – it’s indicative of their under developed social awareness. They just want to be included but don’t understand how to do this in a socially acceptable manner. Either way – the child has a definite “quirkiness” about them.
2: REPETITIVE PLAY
Children with autism may also indulge in a lot of repetitive play. They may sit and watch the spinning of a wheel for a long time or continue to retrace their steps and repeat the same actions over and over again never seeming to tire of the monotony. That’s because children with autism enjoy getting the same result every time and take great comfort from being able to predict the outcome in an otherwise unpredictable world. These kids may also group items together or line them up. Example: rocks in a line in a sandpit or leaves sorted into colour shades.
3. EYE CONTACT
A child who has autism will rarely make eye contact with strangers or with other children. They can sometimes appear to be ignoring you but this is rarely the case. I’ve been told by autistic individuals that they are unable to look at people when they’re spoken to because it confuses them and they have to stop listening in order to look. They say that looking in people’s eyes is frightening unless they know , love and trust the person talking. Often times a child with autism may become mute when a stranger speaks to them because they cannot form the correct words whilst their brain is in freak-out mode.
If a child is in fact on the autistic spectrum, they may react if they are touched, hugged or accidentally brushed up against in a playground setting. They may strike out at another child who playfully pushes, taps or attempts to cuddle them as they sense that their personal space is being invaded. Because of this, they can wrongly be labelled as ‘rough’ ‘mean’ or ‘aggressive’ but really it’s just their self-protection mode kicking in.
Or….a child who under registers stimuli may do the exact opposite and be overly affectionate and not seem to recognise those invisible boundaries that we all have. Either way – the behaviours displayed here in these two scenarios are an indication that there is something bigger going on with that child.
5. UNDERSTANDING VERBAL CUES
These kids struggle to understand and comprehend instructions especially if they’re complex or contain too many steps. So you’re looking for the child who seems to be deaf or ignoring their parents or who doesn’t register that they’ve been spoken to immediately. The child may explode if they are unable to convey their wants and needs to their caregiver and become frustrated if they’re not understood by other children.
An autistic child may repeat (and mimic) the phrases that other children use or insert lines from a movie or tv show into a conversation whether it fits or not. This is called echolalia and it is a very common communication tool for children who are developing speech.
If a group of children are playing together and one of them changes the ‘rules’ or starts to play it differently, the autistic child may react with aggression or anger because they are not coping with change and suddenly become frightened at their lack of understanding. Autistic children thrive on rules and routines and require them to function peacefully.
8. SENSORY STIMULII
A child with autism may severely under or over react to noises, crowds, smells and sights. This is all due to their sensory system either being overloaded or under registering. Most typically developing children won’t notice subtle changes in noise levels or the sun getting brighter but you can bet your bottom dollar that the over sensory child will be the first to react negatively.
9. UNUSUAL COMPASSION
Children with autism usually always have an affinity with nature and with animals. They seem to have somewhat of a connection that most of us just don’t understand. The autistic child may be the one who prefers to lay down in the dirt with a dog or finds a lizard underneath a rock. They may also become upset and inconsolable if another child steps on an insect and go into bat for the poor defenseless ants that are crawling up your leg!
Every single autistic individual that I have met has got a very gentle nature and a sensitivity to all forms of life that most of us could really only dream of.
10. DANGER AWARENESS
The last thing to look for is the child who has no apparent fear of danger or consequence. And this goes beyond the normal ‘rough and tumble’ boy stuff. These kids have an underdeveloped sense of caution and just don’t see the risks that most other children would instinctively notice. Look for the child climbing up the flying fox or jumping off the top level of the climbing structure or – *gasp* running onto a highway to get to the shiny object that has caught their eye over the other side.
Autism really is beautiful. It is almost magical and it is extremely rewarding to live with. But how do I know this? I and the mother of two boys who have autism and they have taught me so much more than I could have ever imagined.
Because of them, I now appreciate the smaller things that most folk often take for granted. I am learning to look for beauty in the most unlikely places and I no longer take anything at face value.
Let me encourage you all to dig deeper, invest into those “different” people in society and you will always find that it was more than worth the effort.