Finding out that your child has been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be a difficult time, and parents often have lots of questions about what ASD is, how their lives will be affected and what support they can offer their child to ensure they reach their potential.
Autism is a developmental spectrum disorder, the term ‘spectrum’ means that characteristics of autism can vary between individuals.
Whilst children with severe ASD are often diagnosed around the age of two, for others the diagnosis may not happen until they are about 8 or 9. ASD is more commonly diagnosed in boys and is a lifelong condition associated with an aversion to social contact, rigid thought and behaviour patterns, and hypersensitivity to certain environmental stimuli such as loud noises or strong smells.
In the last few years, the profile of ASD has been raised, with famous people such as Chris Packham, Susan Boyle, Dan Ackroyd and Temple Grandin talking about their diagnosis. Whilst we know more about ASD now and it is in the press more frequently, it’s still perfectly normal to have questions and concerns as to what an ASD diagnosis will mean for your child and your family.
Here are six things you can start to think about straight away:
Autism describes a spectrum of difficulties relating to sensitivity to change, and as a result, individuals with ASD can often adopt rigid patterns of behaviour that help them to feel safe and in control. Sometimes, routines that are established early on can be difficult to change, so where possible, think about how the routines you establish will fit in with your family lifestyle and interests. If you can factor in some flexibility, this may help your child adapt if circumstances change – which they inevitably will. However, remember that some degree of routine can be helpful to set expectations which can be calming and reassuring. As with most things, it is all about balance.
For many, the diagnosis of ASD comes in the pre-school period, which can raise questions around which schools to consider. This must be an individual choice made on your child’s learning needs, however, there is a case to be made for keeping your child in mainstream education for as long as possible.
School is a challenging time for all children, but for children with ASD it brings its own set of complications. School settings can be chaotic and noisy at times with many things out of the child’s control. Obtaining additional classroom support can make things easier as well as having a good, open dialogue with your child’s teachers. Often relatively small changes such as where your child sits in the class, can make a huge difference.
Many children with ASD are happy and settled at ‘mainstream’ schools, for others going to a school that can be more tailored in their approach is better – keeping the dialogue open with your child’s teacher will help inform you as to the right option for your family.
Whilst there is no cure for ASD, there are lots of different sources of support for parents with children who have a diagnosis of Autism. These range from parenting support groups (providing invaluable knowledge and informal networks) to a more formalized therapy such as ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) and lots inbetween!
ABA therapists offer intensive support in teaching new skills and knowledge and can be useful when traditional forms of education have been unsuccessful or to help support your child in their current school. For many parents, establishing an effective form of communication with their child is an important primary goal, and when ABA is applied to learning communication skills, it is often referred to as Verbal Behaviour (VB) therapy. ABA/VB therapy is based on positive reinforcement principles and errorless learning, making it a punishment-free way to learn skills in a bespoke one-to-one environment.
For example, if you are a family who enjoys spending time at the beach, in the snow, or with animals, introduce these activities as early as possible so that they become a normal part of day-to-day life, and any difficulties encountered can be managed constructively. It is also important to note that ASD does not impair children’s ability to learn physical skills. Sports and exercise are very important as they provide activities that are fun, and often social for your child throughout the lifespan, and are something the whole family can do together. They are also a constructive outlet of energy!
Children with ASD can have difficult relationships with food: some are very picky eaters, and others will eat indiscriminately – including substances that could be harmful, such as uncooked foods or objects not intended for human consumption. To further complicate matters, ASD is often associated with dietary intolerances, which can cause bowel upsets or mood disturbance. If you are concerned that your child’s diet may be causing physical or emotional disturbances it is advisable to keep a food diary in the first instance, or to seek specialist support from a dietician.
Perhaps one of the most sensible bits of advice for any parents, regardless of whether their child has a diagnosis of ASD or not, is to pick your battles. Children’s struggles and preferences change over time so things you are experiencing now won’t necessarily be an issue in a few months’ time. Children with ASD tend to have a few more ‘preferences’ to other children, is it really such a big deal if they eat their food in a certain order, won’t wear trousers with labels in them or need to wear headphones when outside of the house? Small things like these can, if you are not careful, blow up into huge sources of conflict. It’s important to you and your child that you can enjoy time together, so taking a step back and seeing some of these challenges in the context of the bigger picture might help you refocus on what is important and what is simply a trait of your child being an individual.
Parenting is often a challenge, and when your child has a diagnosis of ASD those challenges may feel even greater at times. With the right support and resources, we firmly believe that all children can go on to lead enriched, fulfilling and successful lives, regardless of a diagnosis or not.
If your child has been diagnosed with ASD and you would like some specialist support or to discuss getting an assessment for your child, call 0203 761 7026 to see how we can help.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping children, adults, families and organisations nationwide.
Thank you to Clinical Partners for their kind permission to use this article.