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Picture of a young boy with Asperger’s syndrome seated at table doing a puzzle

Asperger’s syndrome in children: what you need to know

Has your child been diagnosed with Asperger’s, or what is now called autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? In children with ASD, brain development occurs a bit differently to how it typically does in children without autism.

The cause of ASD isn’t fully understood, but evidence suggests a genetic basis. While every autistic child is unique, all children diagnosed with ASD have difficulties with social communication skills, a narrow range of interests, and display repetitive behaviours. Autistic children often also have sensory processing concerns, such as under- or over-sensitivity to sight, taste, touch and sounds.

February 18 is International Asperger’s Day, which aims to raise awareness of the significance of Asperger syndrome for individuals living with the condition. If your child has been diagnosed with ASD, this guide discusses coming to terms with the diagnosis and the support options available.

What’s the difference between autism and Asperger’s?

It used to be that children who met certain criteria were diagnosed with three different kinds of autism: Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD–NOS). Asperger’s syndrome was thought to be a less severe or “high-functioning” form of autism. It was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1994.

But in 2013, a DSM update introduced a change to the criteria health professionals use to diagnose autism. In the fifth edition, the DSM-5, these disorders were grouped together under one diagnosis – known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

It’s important to remember that a diagnosis doesn’t mean there’s something ‘wrong’ with your child. Every autistic child will have unique strengths and challenges – just like all children! It simply means they have a different pattern of development to others their age.

Labels matter less than the fact that getting a diagnosis allows you to access therapies and supports to help your autistic child develop to their full potential.

Coming to terms with the diagnosis

Receiving the news that your child has ASD can bring up a huge range of reactions. You might feel:

  • Relieved – if you’ve been wondering for a long time whether your child is developing typically and struggling to get answers, receiving an autism diagnosis can be a relief.
  • Scared or anxious – most parents have moments of anxiety about their child’s prospects. Getting an ASD diagnosis may raise questions about your child’s needs and what this could mean for your family.
  • Disappointed or sad – you may have been hoping for a different outcome and receiving an ASD diagnosis has left you feeling disheartened.
  • Exhausted – you might have spent a long time seeking a diagnosis and feel exhausted from the effort.
  • Angry – you may feel angry this has happened to your family, or over specific things like the time it took to get the ASD diagnosis.
  • Guilty – perhaps you’re wondering whether you could have done things differently or that this is somehow your fault.

Many parents experience an enormous mix of feelings after receiving an ASD diagnosis.  It may help to remember that a diagnosis doesn’t change your child and autism isn’t anyone’s ‘fault’. Rest assured that you’re not the only parent or carer going through this, and support is available for your child and family.

Image of a boy with ASD seated at a table with a woman and playing with blocks
Support is available for your child with ASD and your family

Autism Awareness Australia has great tips for parents and carers and links to helpful resources. ASD support groups are found throughout Australia – an online search should show up one near you. If you continue struggling to come to terms with things, seek support for yourself from a qualified professional.

What support services are available?

Numerous support options are available for children with ASD. It’s important to seek help as early as possible, while your child’s brain continues to develop and mature. Early intervention helps children develop the skills they need to participate in daily activities and is associated with better outcomes.

The goal of early intervention is to foster your child’s development across four key areas: physical, cognitive, behaviour and social/emotional.

Early intervention for children with ASD usually involves a multidisciplinary approach, with input from a team of professionals including your child’s paediatrician, GP and/or child health nurse, and a range of allied health therapies, including:

  • Occupational therapy  – this involves helping your child develop skills for daily activities, such as dressing, toileting and bathing. Occupational therapists can also support the development of hand preference, fine motor skills (such as holding a pencil) and gross motor skills (such as running and throwing a ball).
  • Speech-language pathology – speech-language pathologists support children to develop skills in communication and literacy. They can help your child with things like following instructions, pronouncing words, and expressing themselves. They can also help with skills needed for school, such as recognising letters and reading, and with swallowing concerns.
  • Dietetics and nutrition support – good nutrition is vital for kids’ growing brains and bodies. A dietitian can create a healthy eating plan for each stage of your child’s development, and help with concerns such as reflux, fussy eating, food allergies/intolerances, nutrient deficiencies and nasogastric/PEG feed management.
  • Psychology – for children with ASD, psychology can support the development of social, emotional and behavioural skills, along with managing mental health concerns. For example, a psychologist might help your child learn to manage their emotions, interact with others, build self-confidence and cope with transitions such as moving to a new house or starting school.
  • Behaviour support – behaviour support professionals work with children and their families to reduce or prevent behaviours of concern. They may be psychologists or qualified behaviour support practitioners. When seeing children diagnosed with ASD, they use evidence-based approaches that help children to communicate effectively, handle strong emotions and develop new skills to deal with challenging situations. For instance, they might help kids find better ways to express anger or frustration, control their impulses or comply with requests from caregivers and educators.
  • Physiotherapy – physiotherapists are highly trained in movement and function. When working with children with ASD, they focus on functional motor skills such as balance, rolling over, sitting up, crawling and walking. They use a variety of exercises and evidence-based techniques to help your child develop the physical skills they need to be more independent at home, school and in the community.
Picture of a child with ASD seated at a table with a therapist, working on an activity with shapes and colours
Early intervention aims to foster cognitive, physical, behavioural, and social development

Various funding options are available to offset the cost of therapies, including funding through the NDIS, Medicare, and private health funds.

Visit this page to learn more about funding options for therapy supports with Growing Early Minds.

Find out more about the supports and services funded by the NDIS here.

Even if your child is yet to receive an autism diagnosis, you may still be eligible to receive funding for early childhood early intervention (ECEI) if your child is aged 0-6 years.

Learn more about the NDIS and the ECEI approach at Growing Early Minds

What else can I do to support my child?

As a parent or caregiver, your health professionals will involve you in your child’s assessment and therapy programs. Success is most likely with regular practice, so you’ll probably be given a home program to complete between therapy sessions. For example, you may have exercises to work on each day or behavioural strategies to practice.

There are several other ways you can support your autistic child to fulfill their potential. Here’s eight things to try at home.

1. Create a routine

Children with ASD usually thrive with a well-structed routine. It helps to create a schedule and stick to it as closely as possible. For example, have set times for meals, homework, therapies and bedtime. If a change in routine is unavoidable, give your child as much notice as possible.

2. Be aware of non-verbal cues

Look out for non-verbal signals your child may be using to communicate, such as facial expressions, hand gestures, and sounds. Over time, you’ll learn what different signals mean, such as hunger or tiredness. You can also communicate with your child non-verbally, using your tone of voice, body language and gestures, for example.

3. Be consistent

Children with ASD crave stability but often have difficulty transferring skills from one environment to another. You can help by providing consistency. Use the same signs at home as your child is learning at school, for instance, and the same cues and feedback to practise tasks they’re learning in therapy.

4. Use visual cues

Children with autism frequently find it easier to learn visually. Help them by finding visual ways to represent things. For example, you could create a colourful chart of their daily routine or a series of gestures for common requests (such as five fingers to indicate five minutes left for completing an activity).

5. Reward good behavior

Positive reinforcement encourages behaviours you’d like to see more of, so make sure to praise your child when you catch them in the act. Give specific feedback about what you’re praising them for, such as the way they shared a toy or made eye contact. You can also use rewards such as stickers or time for favourite activities.

6. Be aware of sensory concerns

As we mentioned, children with ASD often have difficulties with sensory stimuli. Pay attention to the sensory inputs that tend to trigger problem behaviours and those that encourage more positive ones, so you can manage their environment accordingly. For example, your child may do better in a quiet room with few distractions.

7. Remember to have fun

Play is essential for every child’s development. Think about things that make your child smile or open up, and have fun doing these together.

8. Learn more about autism

The more you know about ASD, the better you’ll be able to support your child. Educate yourself about the condition and treatment options and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The team of experienced professionals at Growing Early Minds provide assessment and early intervention to help children achieve optimal developmental outcomes. For children with ASD, they will tailor an evidence-based and family-centred plan based on your child’s needs and goals. They will work with your family, caregivers, educators and other health professionals (with your permission) to ensure a consistent approach to your child’s therapy.

Learn more by calling our friendly staff on 1800 436 436, email support@growingearlyminds.org.au, or contact us here.

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