One of the many difficult things a parent of a child with autism has to face is to help the other adults in their child’s life understand what an autism diagnosis actually means, and how they can all pull together to help and support the child and their whole family.
A lot of autism symptoms can look like bad behaviour, and it’s so easy for other people to judge, but the child isn’t being naughty. In most cases what looks like bad behaviour is actually a child in extreme distress doing all they can to protect themselves from what feels like severe emotional or physical pain. Additionally, one of the symptoms of autism is difficulty communicating, and since all behaviour is a form of communication, sometimes their behaviour is the only way they can tell us something important.
Yes there are dozens of different symptoms of autism, and because every child has a different selection of these symptoms and all of the symptoms can have a different level of severity, it is very unlikely that anyone will have met two children who’s autism affects them in exactly the same way. The most visible symptoms often aren’t the ones that are used to diagnose autism anyway. The symptoms we see are normally strategies that the child is using to try and avoid triggers that will cause deep distress, or other strategies that will minimise the pain once something has already happened to make them feel very unsafe and insecure in their environment.
Of all the many possible symptoms, the ones that clinicians are looking for to make a diagnosis will be in three very specific areas of behaviour, and these three areas are called The Triad of Impairments. Unless they can clearly see that a child has at least one symptom in each of all three of these areas, they cannot be certain that a child has autism.
They will be looking for clear signs that a child has an Impairment in Social Communication. That can mean things like not understanding the give and take of normal conversation, so that a child may ask the same question over and over, or they may dominate a conversation and only be able to talk about their own intense interests. It can also mean that a child has very little interest in communicating, or only communicates when they need something themselves. Sometimes children with autism are non-verbal and don’t talk at all.
Next they are looking for symptoms concerned with rigid thinking and a lack of a social imagination. That might mean that a child is unable to see someone else’s point of view, or that they take everything very literally. It can also mean that a child has great difficulty coping with changes in routine, or that they play in a very fixed and unusual way.
Lastly, to be diagnosed with autism, a child has to have at least one symptom in the area of social interaction. That means that they may find it very difficult to make or to keep friendships, they may touch other people inappropriately or stand too close to them. It can also mean that they don’t understand non-verbal communication such as facial expressions, hand gestures or body language, and they may also find eye contact so intense that it feels painful.
There are lots of other conditions that can look like autism, like ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Sometimes children have autism as well as one or more than one of these other conditions. Getting the right diagnosis means that the child can be properly supported to grow, develop and learn in the way that’s right for them, and to get help to make sense of the world around them which can often seem very frightening and confusing.
What all our children need most is love, understanding and an acceptance of who they are rather than who we would like them to be, along with ongoing support to learn to shine in their own individual way. That’s the same for every child, whether or not they have autism or any other diagnosis.

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