Autism in Children and Adolescents

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication. It falls under the umbrella of a "spectrum" disorder, meaning that its characteristics can vary significantly among individuals. Autism is a complex condition, and seeking a professional assessment is the first step in learning how to support your child effectively.

What is autism?

As a parent, you may have noticed that your child processes information differently from their peers and wondered if they have autism. It is beneficial to obtain a formal diagnosis from a child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in autism. They can determine whether your child has autism and provide guidance on the ongoing support they might need.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that involves challenges in social communication, interacting with others, and exhibiting restrictive or repetitive behaviors or interests.

The spectrum nature of autism means that the characteristics can vary widely among individuals. It is crucial to conduct a comprehensive assessment that explores your child's strengths and challenges to understand their specific needs fully.

While many people in the general population may exhibit autistic traits, they may not meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis.

In recent years, the United States has revised the classification system for autism, removing terms like Asperger's. It is likely that the United Kingdom will adopt a similar revised system, as the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists (ICD-10) is being updated. These changes can be confusing for families and individuals.

Signs of autism

Some children display obvious signs of autism from an early age and receive a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, for others, the symptoms may be subtle and harder to identify.

Certain children may have strengths that allow them to mask their difficulties with social communication and interaction, making it challenging to consider a formal diagnosis. A thorough autism assessment should consider all aspects of your child's life, both at home and school, and gather input from various adults involved in their care. This comprehensive evaluation helps clinicians understand the child's difficulties holistically and determine if they meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis.

The importance of early diagnosis of autism

Obtaining an early diagnosis of autism can have a significant impact on the child and their family. It allows for the implementation of appropriate adjustments to help the child thrive in their environment. It also promotes understanding of the child's behavioral characteristics among family members and school personnel. Autism is a lifelong condition that affects the whole family, and an early diagnosis can address unmet needs and provide support for everyone involved.

Types of autism

In the UK, practitioners typically use two classification systems: the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision (ICD-10) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 has eliminated some previous classifications, and it is likely that the UK will follow suit.

As of 2018, the recognized subtypes of autism in the UK are:

  1. Autistic spectrum disorder
  2. Asperger's syndrome
  3. Pathological demand avoidance (PDA)
  4. Childhood disintegrative disorder
  5. Pervasive developmental disorder (not otherwise specified)

The DSM-5 has removed the term "Asperger's" and uses the term "autism spectrum disorder" as the commonly given diagnostic term. It is expected that the UK will adopt this terminology as well.

Asperger's Syndrome

In the previous classification system, Asperger's Syndrome was diagnosed when individuals displayed autism-related difficulties without significant delays in speech or cognitive development.

However, the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used in the United States, has removed Asperger's Syndrome as a separate diagnostic category. It is now considered part of the broader autism spectrum disorder. While it still remains in the ICD-10, the manual used by UK psychiatrists, there is a general consensus that the term may be removed in the future.

The changing terminology surrounding autism can be confusing for individuals and their families, leading to questions about its impact. It is important to understand that autism is an umbrella term and is considered a spectrum disorder, meaning that the severity of its characteristics can vary among individuals.

Pathological Demand Avoidance

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is a behavioral profile within the autism spectrum. While there is some debate about its exact placement within the spectrum, individuals with PDA share many characteristics with autism, including difficulties with social communication, interaction, and repetitive or restricted behaviors.

Children with PDA experience deep anxiety when faced with demands and a loss of control in situations. Their anxiety manifests in various behaviors, such as resisting everyday demands, employing tactics to avoid tasks, lacking social understanding, experiencing mood swings (e.g., anger, irritability), and procrastinating.

Gender Differences

Research has shed light on the prevalence of autism in girls compared to boys. The results have varied, ranging from boys being twice as likely to ten times as likely to receive an autism diagnosis.

Historically, autism was believed to affect only boys. However, it is now recognized that autism does not discriminate based on gender. While girls may be more socially adept and capable of masking their difficulties, they can still exhibit symptoms of autism. Some differences between autistic girls and boys include:

  • Autistic girls tend to be less aggressive and get into trouble less frequently, making it more challenging to identify them as autistic.
  • Autistic girls may find it easier to understand nonverbal social cues.
  • Autistic girls are more prone to experiencing anxiety or depression.
  • Autistic girls may integrate into social groups, often due to other girls taking on a mentoring role and including them in friendships.
  • Autistic girls may develop focused interests in topics considered more socially acceptable, while boys may gravitate toward "geeky" subjects like computer games or airplanes.

It is essential to find a clinician who understands the complexities of autism and is aware that symptoms can differ between genders to ensure an accurate diagnosis for your daughter.

Signs of Autism in Children

Although the presentation of autism symptoms can vary significantly among children, there are shared characteristics that all autistic children exhibit. These characteristics are often referred to as the Autism Spectrum Disorder Triad of Impairments.

In recent years, diagnostic criteria for autism have been condensed into two domains: social communication and restrictive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.

Key characteristics of autism include difficulties in maintaining friendships, working with others, and managing social situations. Autistic children may have distinct relationships compared to their peers, which is not uncommon.

The triad of impairments consists of the following:

  1. Social communication difficulties: Autistic individuals may struggle to understand and interpret body language, metaphors, sarcasm, and social interactions. Challenges with maintaining eye contact and processing verbal communication are also common.
  2. Social interaction challenges: Autistic individuals may display limited facial expressions, delayed or impaired speech, detachment in group settings, a lack of empathy for others' emotions, difficulty understanding their own emotions, and a lack of awareness of personal space. They may also exhibit little interest in playing with other children or experience distress when attempting to play with them.


  1. Social imagination and flexibility: Autistic individuals may find disturbances to routines highly challenging and upsetting. Difficulties in managing change and a preference for routine are common.

It is important to remember that the way these autism symptoms are presented can vary greatly among children. Seeking a professional evaluation is crucial for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate support.

Repetitive and restricted behaviors, interests, and activities are common characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These behaviors serve several purposes in helping individuals with ASD navigate the uncertain and overwhelming world:

  • Creating order and reliability in a chaotic world: Engaging in repetitive behaviors and adhering to strict routines provides a sense of structure and predictability for individuals with ASD.
  • Providing relaxation: Repetitive behaviors can help individuals with ASD relax and self-soothe, serving as a calming mechanism in overwhelming situations.
  • Regulating sensory input: Engaging in repetitive behaviors or focusing on specific interests allows individuals with ASD to control and modulate their sensory experiences, either by seeking or avoiding certain stimuli.

Examples of repetitive behaviors and interests in individuals with ASD include:

  • Repetitive movement with objects or body parts, such as arm flapping, rocking, spinning, or head banging.
  • Stimming, which involves repetitive activities that engage the senses, such as touching or feeling certain textures.
  • Lining up toys or arranging objects in a specific manner.
  • Difficulties with changes to routines and an insistence on sameness.

In addition to repetitive behaviors, individuals with ASD often develop fixated interests, where they become intensely focused on a particular topic or subject. They may accumulate extensive knowledge about their interests, carry related objects, and have difficulty engaging in conversations unrelated to their interests.

Sensory sensitivities are also common in individuals with ASD. They may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to certain sensory stimuli, such as light, sounds, smells, tastes, or textures. Sensory sensitivities can significantly impact their daily lives and may cause discomfort or distress.

Obtaining a formal diagnosis for your child with autism can be beneficial for understanding their challenges and providing appropriate support. Some reasons to seek a diagnosis include:

  • Understanding your child's challenges: A diagnosis helps explain why certain things may be challenging for your child and provides a framework for understanding their unique needs.
  • Accessing appropriate support: A diagnosis ensures that your child receives the necessary support and accommodations tailored to their specific needs. It opens doors to therapies and interventions that can enhance their development and well-being.
  • Identifying co-occurring conditions: A diagnosis can help detect other conditions, such as depression or ADHD, that may co-occur with autism. Addressing these conditions can contribute to a more comprehensive treatment approach.

Supporting an autistic child involves various interventions and therapies. Some options include:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This therapy focuses on addressing and modifying problematic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Family Therapy: Involving the entire family in therapy can help improve communication, understanding, and coping strategies.
  • Social skills training: Teaching and practicing social skills can enhance an autistic child's ability to interact and communicate with others effectively.
  • Communication skills training: Targeted interventions can assist in developing and improving speech and language abilities.
  • Speech and Language therapy: Therapists can work with children to enhance their communication skills, including speech, language comprehension, and nonverbal communication.
  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapists help individuals develop skills for daily living, fine motor skills, sensory integration, and self-regulation.
  • Educational support: Collaborating with schools to implement appropriate accommodations and modifications to support the child's learning and social integration.

Seeking support as a parent or guardian of an autistic child is essential. It can provide guidance, strategies, and emotional support to navigate the challenges of parenting a child with autism. Support options may include consulting with parenting experts, therapists, or joining support groups to connect with other families facing similar experiences.

Remember that every child and family is unique, and finding the right combination of support and interventions may require some trial and error. Working closely with professionals can help tailor the support to meet your child's specific needs and enhance their overall well-being.

To learn more about the different services we offer for children, please click on the links below: 

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

Child and Adolescent Psychology:

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy:

Autism in children and adolescents:

Autism assessments for children and young people:

ADHD in Children and Adolescents:

Behavioral issues in Children and Adolescents:

Self harm in Children and Adolescents:

Depression in Children and Adolescents:

Information for Parents:

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Information for Healthcare Professionals:

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