Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not an illness or a disease, and is not something that can be cured. It is, as the medical name suggests, a ‘spectrum’ – which means that autistic people will experience different characteristics across this spectrum.
Autistic people view their condition as a fundamental part of who they are, so it is important that we reflect this in the language we use.
What is Autism?
Autism is a developmental disability which causes people to experience difficulties with social communication and interaction, along with restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests.
Autism was first identified in 1943 by Leo Kanner, who described it as ‘early infantile autism’. At the time, it was thought to be quite rare. Twenty years later, Victor Lotter studied behavioural patterns in children and gave an estimated prevalence rate of 4.5 per 10,000 children (Lotter, 1966).
Today, The National Autistic Society estimate that around one in 100 people are autistic – but this figure could be much higher. This is due to a number of different factors, such as the ever-changing definition of what autism is and how difficult it can be to diagnose.
People with autism will usually experience some or all of these characteristics:
- A difficulty communicating or interacting with other people
- A difficulty in understanding how other people feel or think
- Taking a longer time to process information
- Anxiety when faced with unfamiliar situations and socialising
- Bright lights and/or loud noises may be uncomfortable or stressful
It is important to recognise that some autistic people can lead a relatively normal life, with very little support in place. For others, having a support plan or additional resources will enable them to manage triggers and/or communication difficulties effectively.
Signs of Autism in children
Both boys and girls can be autistic – but according to the National Autistic Society, autism in females is harder to diagnose. This is because girls are more likely to:
- Hide key signs by copying the behaviour of other children
- Withdraw from situations they find uncomfortable
- Display better coping strategies in social situations
- Generally show fewer signs of repetitive behaviour
There are also different signs pointing to autism depending on whether a child is younger or older.
Young children may not respond to their name, or they may avoid eye contact. They may not smile when you smile at them, and they may be less vocal than other children. Repetitive physical and vocal behaviours may be displayed – and getting upset with a certain taste, sound or smell may manifest.
Older children may have difficulties explaining how they feel, and understanding how others feel. They may display unusual speech such as the repeating of words or phrases, and are generally more likely to take language literally. They may also display frustration or anger if an established routine is broken or changed. Older children with autism may have difficulties making and maintaining friendships, ultimately preferring to be on their own. A very keen interest in a certain activity may be a key spectrum sign.
Diagnosis can generally be difficult due to signs of autism aligning with age-related behaviours, or other health problems.
“I’ve been able to attend Autism training, Behaviour with Attachment in Mind training and I also went to London to complete Life Story work at the Coram centre. All of these courses have helped me to understand the young people better, and hopefully will help them to understand themselves.”
Fostering a child with autism
Any young person entering foster care will have experienced a degree of trauma – but this trauma can be hugely amplified if the child is autistic.
Looking at some of those key traits of autism again, we can start to understand how traumatic coming into foster care is for a young person on the autistic spectrum:
- Anxiety when faced with unfamiliar situations and socialising. The very nature of foster care means having to leave a family home and acclimatise to new surroundings and new people. This can be stressful for any young person, but it is ultimately more of a trigger for an autistic child.
- A difficulty communicating or interacting with other people. Coming into a foster home will inevitably involve interacting with new people on a daily basis. There may be additional birth children in the foster home, and there will be other interactions such as with social workers and education professionals.
- A difficulty in understanding how other people feel or think. Interpreting how other people feel or think in a foster home could prove challenging, which could lead to misunderstandings and anxiety for both the young person and the foster carers.
Specialist training is available for those who want to foster autistic young people. Whilst specific care plans will detail the needs for a particular young person, there are some general approaches and strategies:
1. Set up and maintain routines
Routines are key when fostering autistic young people. This could be eating meals at the same time each day, or going for walks using the same route. There may be routines that the young person was accustomed to within their birth home, so maintaining these routines if possible will also help the young person to settle in the fostering home.
2. Plan changes to routines in advance
Changes to any routines can be stressful and sometimes overwhelming for a child with ASD. However there will always be circumstances where things need to change. The best way of introducing a change to day-to-day routines is to plan ahead and, if possible, to introduce the change gradually over time.
3. Think about setting up a sensory area
All autistic young people respond in different ways to their environment, but a sensory space is something to consider. Finding out what colours and sounds are relaxing to that person will help you plan an area where that young person can go if they’re feeling overwhelmed.
4. Introduce visual supports
Using visual resources can sometimes help with communication. These could include drawings, photos and symbols. They can be tangible and physical objects, or they can exist virtually on a mobile phone or tablet. Also, using visual whiteboards in your home that feature symbols are a great way of marking routines and timetabling events.
5. Mind your language!
Autistic young people can interpret language on a literal level, so just be careful of using metaphors and other non-specific language when communicating. Also, avoid using open-ended questions. Instead keep things short, specific and offer choices or options where possible. Always remember that you can use visual aids to help with communication!
Could you foster a child with ASD?
Although fostering an autistic child can come with its challenges, TACT provides specific training that fully equips foster carers with the tools they need to make a difference to children’s lives. Many of our carers have reported that they have seen a young person on the autistic spectrum thrive in their care. If you could provide care for an autistic young person, why not make a no-obligation enquiry by completing the form on this page – or call us on 0330 123 2250.
Read more about fostering a young person with a disability.