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Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neural developmental disability, which typically causes a person to have difficulty with social and communication skills. A child with ASD will often prefer to stick to a set of familiar activities, and will resist changes to daily routines. ASD is a wide-spectrum disorder, which means that no two people with Autism will have exactly the same symptoms or severity of symptoms. In this article we will review the symptoms of ASD, as well as how it is assessed and treated.

Signs a Child May Have Autism Spectrum Disorder

For a child to be diagnosed with Autism, there needs to be abnormalities with their interpersonal skills, as well as peculiar behaviours that are persistent across different scenarios in the child’s life. You, their teacher and/or other parents might observe a range of behaviours including:

  • Difficulty responding to or initiating social interactions. Often preferring to be by themselves rather than with people.

  • Language skills that are well behind other children of their age.

  • Appearing to not understand what people want or say.

  • Using language in an unusual way, such using overly formal or academic language. In-depth vocabulary around 1-2 specific topics, e.g. trains or dinosaurs, but very limited in other functional vocabulary, e.g. “drink, eat, shoes, water, toilet, car.”

  • Using objects such as a cup or DVD, to show what they want, more than using spoken words.

  • Repetitive speech or physical movements, such as excessive flapping of the arms when excited.

  • Very inflexible adherence to routines.

  • Extremely fixated interests on any particular topic.

  • Unusual sensitivity to audial, visual or physical stimulus.

Assessment and Diagnosis

Diagnosis is usually made by a Child Psychiatrist, Paediatrician or Psychologist. If you suspect your child has Autistic Spectrum Disorder, your local District Health Board’s Child Development Team is an ideal point of contact. They are a multi-disciplinary team and will provide specialised assessments for your child before referring you to suitable experts for on-going support.

The Role of Speech Therapy in Treatment

One of the experts to whom your child may be referred is a Speech-Language Therapist (SLT). It can be challenging for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to interact meaningfully with others and the intent of speech therapy is to help these kids reach their full communication potential. Key outcomes SLTs work toward include improved social skills, understanding of language and the ability to engage in back-and-forth interactions. Also, for children who are over-sensitive to sounds and who might display reactions such as covering their ears in a noisy classroom, an SLT will develop strategies to remove such barriers to learning.

Support Funding

Many children with Autism will qualify for funding to support their learning needs throughout their schooling. The New Zealand On-going Resource Scheme (ORS) is available for children diagnosed with severe learning impairments and depending a child’s severity of ASD, they may qualify for it. The NZ Ministry of Education’s Special Education branch can write ORS applications for school-aged children, and should be contacted through school, your SLT or Doctor.

In conclusion, there is no cure for Autism, but Doctors, Speech-Language Therapists, and Teachers can help these individuals learn to communicate and socialise better. Some children with Autism will progress through school and University, then lead full lives on their own. Many will need some kind of help to achieve this, but with caring, professional support they will all have brighter futures!

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