School Health Service

Autism: An introduction – parents and carers

Autism spectrum conditions (ASC) is the name for a range of similar conditions, including asperger syndrome, which affect a person's social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.

Autism occurs early in a person’s development, often before three years of age, although a diagnosis can be made later.

Autism is known as a spectrum condition because of the range of difficulties that can affect children and because of the way that these present in different people.

It's estimated that about one in every 100 people in the UK has it and more boys are diagnosed with the condition than girls.

There is no ‘cure’ for autism but speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational support, plus a number of other interventions are available to help children and parents.

Every local authority is required to produce an Autism Plan to help plan for the right services and support to be in place for children and young people.

Read more about the help and support available for people with autism on NHS Choices.

Signs and symptoms

People with autism have problems with social interaction, social imagination and communication.

In early infancy, some children with autism don’t babble or use other vocal sounds. Older children can have problems using non-verbal behaviours to interact with others. For example, they may have difficulty with making eye contact, understanding facial expressions, body language and gestures.

Children with autism may also lack awareness of and interest in other children. They may either gravitate to older or younger children, rather than interacting with children of the same age. They tend to play alone.

Children can find it hard to understand other people's emotions and feelings, and have difficulty starting conversations or taking part in them properly. Developmental language disorders are common, and a child may remain pre-verbal.

Children with autism will tend to repeat words or phrases spoken by others (either immediately or later) without this having a communicative intent, and without formulating their own sentences. Some children don’t demonstrate imaginative or pretend play, while others will continually repeat the same pretend play.

Some children with autism like to stick to the same routines and may find changes to routine very upsetting. Some children may show sensory seeking behaviours such as flapping their hands when they’re excited or upset. Others may engage in repetitive activity, such as turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors, or lining things up.

Many children and young people with autism frequently experience a range of additional learning difficulties including cognitive (thinking), learning, emotional and behavioural problems. Autism can be linked with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression.

Read more about the symptoms of autism on NHS Choices.

Getting a diagnosis

The main features of autism – problems with social communication and interaction – can often be recognised during early childhood.

Some features of autism may not become noticeable until a change of situation, such as when the child starts nursery or school.

You should speak to your child’s teacher, GP or school nurse if you notice any of the signs and symptoms of autism in your child, or if you're concerned about your child's development. It can also be helpful to discuss your concerns with your child's school.

Read more about diagnosing autism on NHS Choices.

Caring for someone with autism

Being a carer isn't an easy role. When you're busy responding to the needs of others, it can affect your emotional and physical energy, and make it easy to forget your own health and mental wellbeing.

If you're caring for someone else, it's important to look after yourself and get as much help as possible. It's in your best interests and those of the person you care for.

There is lots of information about the care and support available to carers on NHS Choices:

You can also call the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.

What causes autism spectrum conditios?

The exact cause of autism spectrum conditions is unknown, but it's thought that several complex genetic and environmental factors are involved.

In the past, some people believed the MMR vaccine caused autism, but this has been investigated extensively in a number of major studies around the world, involving millions of children, and researchers have found no evidence of a link between MMR and autism.

Read more about the causes of autism spectrum conditions on NHS Choices.


This information has been provided by our school nurses and NHS Choices.