Children develop at their own pace. For example, some take longer to utter their first word, acquire new skills, or learn to respect other people's feelings. Eventually, most kids move past these challenges, but for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families, problems with language, behaviour, and social skills are a fact of life.

Autism spectrum disorders are estimated to affect 1 in 68 children. Although children can be diagnosed as young as 2 years old, often children are diagnosed after the age of 4.

ASD occurs almost 5 times as often in boys as in girls, and symptoms vary greatly from child to child. The causes are not known. (And despite concerns about vaccines as a possible cause, extensive studies have not shown a link.)

It is usually parents who notice the first signs of ASD. Children who develop normally at first may become less responsive to other people over time. In severe cases, a child may not interact or communicate with others at all.

Children with ASD frequently have trouble with social skills and cues or, as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains, "most children with ASD seem to have tremendous difficulty learning to engage in the give-and-take of everyday human interaction."

Signs of problems with social skill can include:

  • lack of eye contact
  • failure to respond when the child is addressed by name
  • preference for playing alone
  • lack of awareness of other people's feelings
  • unable to interpret facial expressions and gestures
  • resistance to being held or cuddled

Behavioural signs are another hallmark of ASD. They range from subtle to extreme, and they can include repetitive movements, such as rocking, flapping hands, or spinning. A child with ASD might become obsessed with an object, or have a fascination with an object's moving parts. They may become upset if specific rituals or routines aren't followed. Children with ASD may be prone to tantrums or want to move constantly, or be hypersensitive to sound, light, or touch. Physically, they may be overactive or inactive, as well as oversensitive or insensitive to pain. A child with ASD might also cry or laugh for no obvious reason. During the teenage years, symptoms may get worse.

Children with ASD may also experience language difficulties, which make social interaction even more difficult. Problems include not speaking at all, or saying words but not being able to make sentences. They may start talking later than other children, or speak with an abnormal rhythm or voice, such as a flat tone or a singsong tone. They may learn words and sentences, only to lose the ability to say them later. Some children know lots of words, but have trouble starting and sustaining conversations. Rather than verbalizing their needs, they may point or use gestures.

The causes of ASD are unknown, although researchers have found some genetic differences that may be responsible. Children with ASD do not outgrow their condition, although many are able to live independently when they become adults. Others may require supportive living and working environments for life. Very rarely, children with ASD are prodigies in a specific area, such as math.

There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, but early diagnosis and treatment can have a positive influence and may reduce symptoms. Your child's doctor can offer advice when selecting the next steps after a diagnosis of ASD, including medications, communication and behavioural therapies, and complementary therapies.  

Jaclyn Law, 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team