Parents of children on the Autism Spectrum

Early signs of children on the autistic spectrum; behaviours and action

While there is no evidence to suggest a link between autism and birth complications, a few of the parents we talked to described complications during birth or their babies were born prematurely and they thought that this had something to do with their children’s autism.
Some children demonstrated other signs of stereotypical ‘autistic’ behaviour such as lining up cars, hand flapping, watching the same DVD over and over again or being very drawn to buttons, lights or electronic equipment.
Several children became distressed or very frustrated regularly and would have temper tantrums or lash out unexpectedly, which parents found difficult to manage (see ‘Fears, anxieties, sensory issues and meltdowns’). Another characteristic of the autism spectrum is advanced skills in areas such as maths or science and a few parents described how their children were brilliant at jigsaw puzzles and maths from an early age. One boy had advanced reading skills from a very early age and was eventually diagnosed with hyperlexia* in association with autism.
Food, allergies and fixations
Some of the children had digestive problems and had constant diarrhoea and projectile vomiting as babies. There is no evidence to suggest a link between food allergies or intolerances, hyperactive behaviour and autism, but some parents thought these might be related (see ‘Medical and dietary interventions’). A dislike or inability to eat solid food or only eat particular types of food was another indication for some parents. They worried about the children’s nutrition as some children only ate crisps and biscuits or drank unusually large amounts of juice. One mother was surprised when her second child ate more than chicken nuggets and chips because she was so used to cooking the same meal for her older son three times a day (see ‘Eating and sleeping’).
Other signs
A few of the children had poor attention spans and some parents initially thought that their children had Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) (see ‘Information). One mother said her son “had no attention span at all, no attention to detail and was a bit of an airhead” while another said her son became extremely hyper” every time they went somewhere new. Several children also had difficulties sleeping or an apparent lack of need for sleep (see ‘Eating and sleeping’).

Some parents were sure that there was something different about their children from a very early age. They could not put their finger on it, but felt that there was something unusual about their baby’s expressions or that their children seemed “old for their age”. As one father said;

 “From the very first day he was born we could see there was something different. It looked as though he had been there before. That is the only way I can explain it. He came out and he looked around as if saying, “Oh yes, I have seen that. Boring.” He just… and there was something in his eyes that was just different. And I thought, he seems to know it all, he just seemed to know it all.”

While many parents recounted early signs, some noticed signs only after the children were diagnosed and had not concerned parents at the time. As one mother said, “We thought that he was just a normal, very active, inquisitive little boy, you know, that was a little bit different, a bit of a loner.”

Parents followed different routes to getting a diagnosis and these are described in ‘Getting a diagnosis; referrals' and 'Getting a diagnosis; assessments and being told'.

*Hyperlexia is characterised by the following;

  • A precocious ability to read words far above what would be expected at their chronological age or an intense fascination with letters or numbers.
  • Significant difficulty in understanding verbal language
  • Difficulty in socialising and interacting appropriately with people

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Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated November 2012.


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