Your essential guide to autism in kids and adults

One in 40 Australians are on the autism spectrum, and every autistic person is unique. From signs in kids and adults to diagnosis and support, here’s what to know.

In Australia, an estimated 675,000 individuals, or one in 40 people, are on the autism spectrum, as reported by Aspect (Autism Spectrum Australia).

Each individual experiences autism differently, influencing everything from their communication style to their social interactions and sensory processing.

Here’s everything you should know about this lifelong condition.

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What is autism?

Autism is not a disease. It’s a developmental condition that affects how people behave and communicate.

We all have different personalities, traits and interests — and autism is simply another difference, clinical psychologist and manager at Aspect Assessments, Dr Fiona Aldridge, says.

“Autism is a difference in a way that a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment or the world around them,” Dr Aldridge explains.

“(Autistic people) might have some preferences, like we all do; however, their particular set of differences can make it hard for them to interact with the world.”

What causes autism?

Current evidence suggests autism is caused by hereditary genes.

“Autism is a difference in brain development, which has a genetic basis,” Dr Aldridge says.

“At this stage, research hasn’t located an individual gene and it is likely that many genes are involved.”

Studies also suggest that an individual’s autism risk increases if family members have the condition.

“Studies have found that if one family member has autism, there tends to be more autism-related traits within the broader family as well,” Dr Aldridge says.

How is autism diagnosed?

To formally diagnose autism, clinicians like paediatricians, speech pathologists, psychiatrists and psychologists use what is known as the DSM-5 criteria.

“The DSM-5 outlines seven different symptom areas that fall into two broad categories,” Dr Aldridge says.

“The first category is around differences in social interaction and social communication, and the second area is differences in behaviours, sensory experiences and the way someone behaves and perceives the world.”

Is autism different in girls?

Autism can be less noticeable in females.

Masking behaviours

“There is evidence that females are more likely to mask their autism or differences,” Dr Aldridge says.

She says to camouflage or blend in, girls might mimic other people’s social interactions or engage in masking behaviours at a greater level than boys, which can lead to a delayed diagnosis.

“The age of diagnosis is later for females than for men, although it is gradually changing with more awareness,” Dr Aldridge says.

Often, autism in girls and women can be overlooked as social anxiety, or similar conditions.

“It takes a while to work through that and for autistic females to be pointed in the right direction,” Dr Aldridge says.

Externalising behaviours

Females are less likely to show externalising behaviours (such as impulsivity or hyperactivity) and are more likely to internalise their differences and difficulties, making them less obvious to others.

“For example, girls and women may show more social interest or desire for social relationships, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have difficulties in the way they interact,” Dr Aldridge says.

Hobbies and interests

Autistic people can have niche hobbies and interests, but this characteristic might look different for females.

“Girls’ passions and strong interests might be more mainstream or typical — it could be something like animals or celebrities but more encompassing or at a greater level than their peers,” Dr Aldridge explains.

“This is compared to males who might have more niche interests, maybe a more technical element or something really specific that they’re equally as passionate about.”

What are the signs of autism in children?

Signs of autism become noticeable as children start communicating.

“One of the first indicators is language development,” child and adolescent psychologist Deirdre Brandner says.

“If a child gets to two to three years old with no signs of speech, that delay in language development may be a sign of autism.”

Other signs might be a child’s difficulty with play, reduced awareness of others, reduced eye contact and a resistance to change.

“A child might have huge difficulties with transitions — maybe with a change of home, a change in the shoes they have to wear, or even a change in the cup they’re using,” Deirdre says.

What is the benefit of early diagnosis?

Early diagnosis of autism offers targeted support during crucial childhood years.

“The brain is really plastic in early childhood so everyone, no matter your neurotype, is developing a lot during this period,” Dr Aldridge says.

“It’s when children grow and learn language and new skills.

“So if you can provide support early on, there is evidence that accessing those appropriate supports can assist children to reach their full potential.”

This support might teach a child the skills they need to participate in school, make friends or live with reduced challenges.

“Early diagnosis allows us to provide interventions and therapies which teaches children skills that allow them to access learning, socialising and activities with reduced challenges,” Deidre says.

How is autism managed in children?

Autism isn’t something to be fixed or treated, but different therapies and supports can teach children the skills they need to thrive.

Support looks different for everyone; however, Deirdre says speech therapy is often involved.

“Particularly at a young age, speech pathology intervention — and intervention around social communication — is beneficial,” she says.

“So, learning what to say, how to approach friends and how to keep a conversation going… Many children just develop these skills naturally but for children with an autism diagnosis, we need to teach them explicitly.”

Speech therapy gives children the building blocks for being able to engage with others.

“It helps reduce many of the social and emotional challenges because when children can communicate what they’re finding difficult, do or don’t like, we see a reduction in meltdowns and externalising behaviours,” Deirdre says.

What does autism look like in adulthood?

For adults with autism, sensory needs can make everyday tasks more complex.

“Shopping centres can be a difficult place to be if someone has sensory needs around bright lights and noises, and that’s why you might see major retailers offering quiet hours,” Deirdre says.

Autism may also create communication differences that affect personal and professional relationships.

“As the subtleties of relationships present in an adult world, it can be confusing for people with autism,” Deirdre says.

“Sometimes those with autism have somewhat of a learnt social script for how they interact, which might become a bit robotic and blunt.

“This can make interactions difficult if others don’t understand the communication style of those with autism.”

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Written by Hayley Hinze