An introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Foster with Bucks, 04 April 2024 - Advice and support for foster carers

One of Child & Family workers, Lisa, shared the following article about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and tools to support children...

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts how a child develops. This affects interactions communication, learning and behaviour. Many children, with support lead happy healthy and successful lives. It is called a 'spectrum' because the symptoms are wide-ranging. People who may have initially been diagnosed with ADHD or anxiety may later be diagnosed with ASD, once further assessment and symptoms are noticed. Sometimes people may have some symptoms that are on the spectrum but it does not mean they have ASD.

Autism doesn’t develop later in life, it is a neurotype and signs are usually seen before the age of 2. Terminology and old classification systems can still cause confusion. Currently, there are 3 levels of Autism:

  • ASD 1 (the lowest classification)
  • ASD 2 (mid-range of support needed)
  • ASD 3 (most severe requiring substantial support)

People may refer to high-functioning Autism, this usually refers to those who cannot read and interpret body language and social cues but are typically developed in other areas.

It can feel very lonely when you feel your child or a child you are caring for is struggling or different. It can also feel chaotic at home sometimes when supporting dysregulation, feeling stuck or when you feel like there are constant battles. There is lots of help and support available. One of the best things you can do is learn what helps your child, as every child has different elements of the spectrum.

Terminology varies greatly and it is helpful to listen to how someone refers to themselves.

Some people like to say, a child with 'autism’, putting the person first, some say ‘Autistic’ which is identity first. You will hear some people say 'Aspergers', which is no longer a correct term but many who were diagnosed with this may still prefer this.


This is lengthy and difficult because the spectrum is so varied and other factors can come into play including trauma, injury and early birth for example. It is better to take time and see the full picture to ensure one gets the right help.

We often see speech and language impairments as a first sign and then challenges in school increase.

Typically there is a noted difference in diagnosis in girls, usually diagnosed much later because symptoms are less disruptive in the classrooms and less obvious.

Girls can have interests that seem more typical, like animals or Disney princesses. They are better at masking and making eye contact for example. We see girls with undiagnosed autism, and therefore support, are more likely to develop depression, low self-esteem and anxiety.

You usually will notice one or both behaviours below:

  1. Delays or difficulties in speech and social skills.
  2. Restrictive and repetitive behaviours.

Each of these areas has a variety of behaviours that you may notice at different ages.

Young child pointing at a smiley face emoji held by adult.

Potential signs of Autism

12 – 18 Months

  • You may notice limited interest in interactive games like peek-a-boo.
  • Your child may not respond to their name.
  • You may notice a lack of or very little babbling.
  • Little response to smiles or interactions from others.

18 – 24 months

  • Little and limited social integration.
  • You may notice that there is no or very little imaginative play, like superheroes or other dress-ups.
  • Few words.
  • Your child doesn’t point at things.

24 – 36 Months

  • Sensitive to noises and to how things feel. For example ‘scratchy' clothes or certain foods.
  • Transitions cause distress, which might show as a tantrum, upset, resistance, disengagement, or argument.
  • Lack of interest in peers.
  • Socially interacts only to have needs met.
  • Stimming - the repetitive performance of certain physical movements or vocalizations.
Adult support a child to learn skills in the kitchen.

Supporting Children and young people with ASD

There is a lot that can be done to help. Noticing and discussing any signs with healthcare visitors, schools and your social worker is a great way to build up support and start observations to see what can be scaffolded around a child to help them flourish. We, as a service, are also here to support families and children. This might be in helping think about transitions, things to manage daily activities, sensory processing, and regulation.

Many children with ASD are happy and thriving but need support as they move through life. It can be easy to worry about a child's education, but looking at strengths is important. It might be a sport, IT-focused,  maths or art. It might be none of these things, but helping find enjoyment and belonging will help children flourish.

Each child’s needs are unique, but we need to think about important outcomes for each child, making reasonable adjustments at school and supporting a child at home. Many children with Autism have unique ways of showing and expressing love. It may take time to get children to try and enjoy new foods or textures. Buffets are a great way. Don’t push or pressure, but just keep offering. Dinner time needs to be relaxing not pressurised.

A few strategies to support children with high-functioning autism:

Empathise and validate emotions.

Show interest and empathy when your child is expressing thoughts and feelings about some things. It can be triggering to hear you are ‘overreacting’ or ‘acting’. Even though they may be reacting over the top for the situation, and their age, acknowledging the feeling can help your child feel safe and understood. For example, ‘That must have been frustrating...’ ‘It’s hard when you don’t do as well as you wanted…’ ‘I know what you mean.’ Statements like this also help build emotional awareness and regulation which is helping build social skills.

Try to remain calm when they cannot.

Sometimes you will feel frustrated yourself but knowing that your child sees and feels the world very differently can help. You are leading their foundation of calm. If you start to show dysregulation, shout, or act angrily, it can escalate and dysregulate your child.  Avoiding statements like ‘why can’t you just...’ is helpful. Because usually they actually cannot. It can be even more difficult if this happens in a shop or the school playground. You remaining calm will always help, and showing frustration will always increase the intensity.

Set up your child for success.

You can use appropriate ways to challenge and increase a child's window of tolerance. Also to boost their self-efficacy. It is important that you pitch things at a level you know they will achieve. Some children want to enjoy fireworks with the family but become too distressed at the noise. You might get noise-cancelling headphones and go to a smaller display to start. For younger children, you might just watch through the window, the following year they might be willing to watch outside with ear defenders.

Ask the school for modified homework and what IT might support your child.

Ask ‘How can I help?’

We know that there is rarely a quick or magic fix, but asking this can be very powerful. You immediately make them feel listened to and valued. It shows your child that you care about them and what they need. If you have a child who is displaying anger, and you respond by saying ‘how can I help?’ the response will be much better than you shouting or telling a child to go to their room. It won’t help every time, but is a great tool for the ’toolbox’ of skills’.

There are many different networks of support. Speak to your social worker if you have noticed anything you think needs further investigation.

Schools usually have SEND support and sensory rooms and will work with you to create a child-centred plan to support a child’s learning experience.

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