Imagine a four-year old child who is acting out somewhat; finding it difficult to conform to the typical behaviours you would normally see in children of that age. You can’t quite explain it, it seems a little extreme, part of you wonders whether this is a child acting out like everyone else would before settling down…
…or maybe it’s because of something else.
I use the four-year old as an example because that’s normally the earliest age where autism is diagnosable. Signs of the condition may manifest as early as 2, but at 4 years, parents will be able to recognize a pattern of abnormal behaviour. If that’s the case, if you’re a parent and you think there’s even the slightest possible chance your son has a hidden condition, you should look at getting it diagnosed.
Now the diagnosis is not as clean-cut as anyone might think. It’s not like pregnancy when you automatically get a positive or negative, and sometimes you have to play a long waiting game. But if you feel your child is autistic, your local GP should be your first port of call, who may then recommend you to an appropriate service.
Also, if possible, you should try and record instances of your child’s behaviour that you may have considered peculiar. It should be noted that at this point some people may not even be thinking of autism as a possible diagnosis and in some cases, may not even be familiar with the condition. This helps because the diagnosis is commonly made through behavioural observation. Perplexing I know, but until they invent an ‘autism detector’ a kid can just walk through, this is the most pragmatic way. A Speech and Language Therapist is qualified to ascertain whether your child has autism, and if so, what kind.
Now, sadly, I’m no psychologist. I cannot fully describe how you would go about getting a diagnosis. So, rather than leave you feeling like you’ve come for information and left with a circus act – unless you’re into mental juggling – please follow this link for informed professionals: http://www.autism.org.uk/about/diagnosis/children.aspx
Now, the autism diagnosis can be a very difficult pill to swallow, especially if you’ve never heard of the condition before. Some parents can be very apprehensive about having their children ‘labelled’ with something that implies they might be less than average.
But, autism doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all you might worry it is. A person’s life isn’t automatically over the second they get the diagnosis. As I have mentioned before, autism has a fair few positives to go with it, and a child could well have the capacity to develop these traits… provided they have the right learning environment.
Young autistic children are not going to fully comprehend how their condition causes them to differ from THE NORM. They’ll pretty much march to the beat of their own drum – and no, this does not mean they’re going to be the next Ringo Starr. A parent understanding their child is always important, even more so with a condition such as autism. Children need parents to help them navigate the world and prepare them to lead their own lives. And a working knowledge of autism is as good a way as any.
Another avenue for you to consider is support. We live in a culture that is perhaps overly dependent on diagnosis, and an autism diagnosis is a bit like a key to a treasure chest – good luck getting to the treasure without it. Even if a child is destined to be a gargantuan brain box, they are still going to need support, especially in education.
Without the support, how do you know that autistic people will be able to adapt to the world, reach their highest potential, get the qualifications they should, the opportunities to socialize, to lead the lives they should, and most importantly, enjoy being themselves? No one knows this, I’m not a fortune teller. But you should definitely consider this when ascertaining your child’s future.
But a diagnosis is vital not just for the parents or carers who must nurture that child…but for the child themselves.
As a self-example, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was four years-old, but I wasn’t aware of my condition until my parents told me on my last day of junior school when I was eleven. In those seven years between the diagnosis and ‘the talk’ – no, not THAT talk – I gradually became aware that I was a little different from everybody else. My suspicions were first aroused when I realized that I was the only one who carried Thomas the Tank Engine trains in their lunchbox. I must confess to my embarrassment that I ended up thinking I was some kind of alien – yes, I know that sounds moronic, but my eight year-old would think anything that wasn’t common sense… not much different from my adult self, really.
When I finally learned of my condition, it was like finally finding the missing piece to that jigsaw you never really finished. All of my perplexities over the years suddenly made a great deal more sense… basically, you feel a lot better when madness has a name besides ‘random madness’. And the alien theory quickly went out the window.
But it took a while for me to get my head around the autism diagnosis. Now, for a lot of teenagers, self-identity is a major conflict for them when they’re trying to get their head around the type of person they want to be. I was no exception. For me, autism felt like an ill-fitted suit I was stuck wearing.
But as I got older, I began associating autism less as ‘something I have’ –very much the same mindset you’d treat an arm or a leg – to ‘something I am’, a key part of my identity. Rather than keep my mouth zipped on the A word as I used to, it is now one of the first things I drop into conversation about myself. If anything, at least people don’t go away feeling the need to hire an exorcist.
I have benefited immensely from knowing about my condition from an early age because it has gifted me with several senses – sadly, none of them include a spider-sense – a sense of self-awareness – I feel like a complicated iPod that now has an instruction manual available. And of course, a sense of identity. Over the years, I have gone from wading through life with little-to-no understanding of why I am the way I am to finding out about it about it and learning about myself to the point where today, I have never been more comfortable in my own skin.
Now, I’m NOT saying that a diagnosis is the only way autistic people can lead fulfilling lives. In fact, I’ve known many remarkable people who have not been diagnosed with autism until well into adulthood and they’ve done all right for themselves. But a diagnosis would go a long way towards improving the circumstances of everyone associated with an autistic person, gifting them with an individual understanding that only a diagnosis could afford.
The sooner you can identify the root of the behaviours, the sooner you will be able to make reasonable adjustments to a person’s life, and ensure a longevity of support.
If you have enjoyed this blog, check out the other articles in our Autism Awareness Week series!