You are likely reading this because you are worried your child has autism. As parents, it is natural for us to worry about our child’s development, particularly if we see them falling behind. It can be very invalidating for parents to then hear the old sayings from family and friends – ‘She is just different’, ‘You are such a worrier’, or ‘He will catch up soon’. But, did you know that research shows that when parents are worried about their child’s development, most of the time they are right!
So what do you do if you are concerned that your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
Get educated, not alarmed
It is important for parents to feel informed about their child’s development – including being educated about the early signs of ASD. While children with ASD are very different from each other, there are some common red flags to look for. Being aware of these red flags can help you decide when to get a professional opinion.
Is my child’s social communication delayed?
The first key early warning sign for Autism Spectrum Disorder is when a child shows limited social communication. What does this look like? Well, a child may not share things they are interested in with you, such as by pointing them out or holding things up to show you. They may not use eye contact to get your attention, fail to respond regularly when you call their name, or use natural gestures such as waving goodbye. Socially, they may not be interested in other children and may not engage in pretend play. Finally, their use of verbal communication may also be limited, such as delayed speech or conversation skills and difficulty following simple instructions. In children who have developed speech, they may have an exceptional vocabulary, speak like an adult, and prefer to talk to adults than play with their peers.
Is my child’s behaviour limited/restricted?
The second key early warning sign of ASD is when a child shows a restricted or repetitive range of behaviors. Some red flags to look out for are if your child shows an intense interest in certain objects or topics, or an interest in objects or activities that are unusual for their age group. When playing, they may also focus narrowly on one part of the object or consistently play with the object in a particular way, without variation – such as spinning the car’s wheels instead of driving it around, or lining up blocks instead of building with them. Another red flag is if your child strongly insists on ‘sameness’ and becomes easily upset by changes to their routine, however small they appear to you. Finally, they may show repetitive or unusual body movements (such as hand-flapping or walking on toes), be sensitive to sensory experiences (such as loud sounds, clothing fabrics, or food textures), or seek out sensory experiences (such as rubbing against objects or vibrating objects or watching light flicker).
What is an ASD Initial Screener?
An ASD Initial Screener can help parents to decide whether or not to have their child assessed for ASD. They are also helpful for parents who find themselves putting off a formal assessment because of high costs and long waitlists to visit their child specialist (such as a developmental paediatrician or child psychiatrist). In this way, the screener option can answer parents initial concerns about their child’s development in a simple, quick, and more affordable way. After the screener, families can then be fast-tracked for a diagnostic assessment or to a specific assessment or treatment service that will meet the needs of their child.
The screener includes visiting an allied health professional who has experience in conducting diagnostic assessments for ASD. The health professional will meet with you for a parent interview to discuss your child’s developmental history and areas of strengths and difficulties. You may also be asked to fill out a structured ASD screening tool. After the interview you will be provided with a brief report with the results as to whether further assessment is recommended or not.
A roadmap for parents
Even after noticing some red flags of Autism, navigating the journey through assessment, diagnosis, funding, and intervention can be overwhelming. While there are many pathways to accessing intervention and support for children with ASD, the following roadmap can give you an idea about some of the essential steps that need to happen. An ASD Initial Screener can be accessed before or after visiting your GP and part of the cost may be eligible for Medicare rebates.
This post was written for Brisbane Kids by Grace Sweeney from Brisbane Kids Psychology Clinic, Benchmark Psychology. Grace has clinical experience helping children, adolescents, and adults with a variety of presenting concerns and a special interest in supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families. Grace is trained in a number of evidence-based interventions for children and families, including Applied Behavioural Analysis, the Secret Agent Society program and Triple P Positive Parenting Program. Grace is currently completing her PhD in Clinical Psychology and is a member of the Australian Psychological Society’s ASD Practitioners List.