Autism Spectrum


Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders are a group of closely related disorders characterised by a triad of difficulties in:

  • Social interaction
  • Communication
  • Restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours

Every child on the autism spectrum has difficulty in each of these three areas, but how much difficulty and the combination of symptoms varies from child to child. There is so much variation that no two children on the autism spectrum have the same combination of symptoms.


Children can show signs of Autism from infancy, however red flags in infancy are subtle and often difficult to detect.  Autism is usually diagnosed at 2 years of age when concerns are raised that developmental milestones are not being met.  Occasionally children will have met all developmental milestones in their first year of life (or even up until 2 years of age) before showing signs and symptoms of autism.

What Are The Social Symptoms of Autism?

Children with Autism have trouble relating to and communicating with other people.  Common signs and symptoms of this are:

  • Poor eye-contact
  • Being less responsive (or unresponsive) to facial expressions (e.g. not reciprocating a parents smile)
  • Being unaware of other people in a room
  • Showing little interest in other children and social games like peek-a-boo
  • Not sharing enjoyment by pointing to objects of interest
  • Not copying social gestures like waving goodbye
  • Not engaging in pretend play
  • Rarely smiling at others

How Does Autism Affect A Child’s Speech and Language Development?

Communication difficulties are another characteristic feature of Autism.  Children with Autism:

  • May never develop spoken language or their language may be significantly delayed (some children may develop a few words but lose these words around 2 years of age)
  • May echo or mimic words or phrases out of context or in an unusual voice (‘echolalia’)
  • Have difficultly initiating or sustaining conversations
  • Have difficulty understanding and following simple instructions (e.g. “give mummy the cup”)

What Are The Behavioural Symptoms Of Autism?

Children with Autism often have restricted interests and can be rigid and sometimes obsessive in their behaviour and interests. Common behavioural symptoms include:

  • Repetitive body movements (e.g. clapping, hand flapping, body rocking)
  • Obsessive attachments to unusual objects (e.g. rubber bands, a button)
  • A strong need for sameness, order, and routine
  • A fascination with  moving parts or parts of toys that leads to unusual play (e.g. focusing on spinning the wheel of a toy truck instead of rolling the truck along the ground as other children might)

Autism + Sensory Sensitivities

Although not a diagnostic category, many children with Autism also have sensory sensitivities which are apparent in their:

  • Sensitivity to and distress at loud noises, light, or odors
  • Dislike for different food textures
  • High tolerance for pain
  • Intense dislike for the feel of certain fabrics or touch

Sensory sensitivities can cause challenging behaviour. For example, touch for a child with hyper-tactility (hyper-sensitivity to touch) can feel uncomfortable or even painful and this can trigger behavioural outbursts.

Aspergers Disorder

What Are The Social Symptoms Of Aspergers?

Like children with Autism, children with Aspergers have difficulty interacting with others, but their social difficulties differ slightly.  For example, children with Aspergers:

  • Initiate, but have difficulty sustaining social interactions
  • Talk about their own interests without considering whether others are interested in the topic of conversation
  • Engage in conversations to speak about their interests or to achieve a purpose  (e.g. asking for help), not to seek a social relationship
  • Make little eye contact
  • Speak without changes in facial expression
  • Interact more easily with adults than children
  • Don’t share enjoyment with others by pointing out objects they find interesting
  • Usually prefer to play alone and when children with Aspergers do involve others in their play it’s usually to serve a purpose (e.g. having someone hold up a tower) rather than to fulfill a desire for social interaction
  • Appear awkward in social interactions

Whereas younger children with Aspergers might have little interest in building friendships, older children may have an interest in friendships but lack the necessary social skills to make friends.

What Are The Behavioural Symptoms Of Aspergers?

Like children with Autism, children with Aspergers often have restricted interests and can be rigid and sometimes obsessive in their behaviour and interests. Common behavioural symptoms of Aspergers include:

  • Repetitive body movements
  • A fixation around areas or objects of interest – children with Aspergers often pursue their area of interest with such intensity that they become ‘walking encyclopaedias’
  • A strong need for sameness, order, and routine

How Does Aspergers Affect A Child’s Communication?

Communication in children with Aspergers is affected by:

  • A lack of ‘give-and-take’ in conversations, and
  • Difficulties interpreting social cues and language (e.g. missing jokes, taking sarcastic comments literally)

Unlike children with Autism, children with Aspergers develop language skills at the expected age. In fact many children with Aspergers are exceedingly verbal from a young age.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified

All children on the autism spectrum are different both in terms of their combination of symptoms and the severity of their symptoms. Children who show fewer and less severe symptoms may be diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Although children with PDD-NOS have less difficulty communicating with and relating to others, early intervention is still critical to help these children achieve positive outcomes.