Understanding autism

Autism is a spectrum, which means that not every autistic child or young person may show all the same signs. These early signs can be spotted by parents, doctors or health visitors.

The common signs of autism in children  and young people can include:

  • communication differences
  • repetitive thought processes and behaviour
  • delayed speech development
  • repetitive behaviour, for example lining up toys
  • self-stimulatory movements, for example hand-flapping
  • being sensitive to certain sensory aspects, such as sounds and textures
  • the inability to recognise nonverbal forms of communication
  • not able to understand what others are thinking or feeling or express their feelings
  • struggling to cope with transitions and changes.

Autistic children and young people can also:

  • be extremely passionate about what interests them
  • perceive the world differently and process information in unique ways
  • be detail orientated and pay attention to the finer details
  • love routines and like to stick to them
  • have great memories and be able to recall facts
  • be visual thinkers
  • be straight forward, direct and honest
  • be very smart
  • have hyperlexia (meaning a child can learn to read early and quickly)
  • be unafraid to be themselves.

They simply have a unique view of the world. And with a little support from their friends, family and classmates, they might just be able to share that view with us. Autism can make amazing things happen.

Explaining to your child or young person they are autistic

It's up to you when you tell your child or young person about their autism. Some parents and carers tell them early on, whilst others wait until they're older. You know your child or young person and you know what's best for them. There's no right or wrong time.

It may help when you tell them to:

  • explain they do not have an illness, but they might need extra support to help them with some things
  • explain they might find some things harder than other people, and some things easier
  • do it when they're feeling calm or relaxed
  • talk to them in a place where they feel comfortable, with no distractions
  • bring them to a support group to meet other autistic children.

The National Autistic Society have put together a helpful guide for how to approach this discussion.

You also may need to sit down with any siblings to discuss how they are feeling. They may have lots of questions and could find it difficult to express their emotions, the charity SIBS have some great advice and support for siblings of autistic children.

Additional support

Sometimes it is hard to understand how someone may be feeling if they have autism, or if you as a parent or carer are unsure if they have autism.

You can find additional support through local charities, groups and networks.

Explaining autism videos

Explaining autism behaviour videos

Ambitious about Autism have put together some helpful videos from young people explaining various behaviours of autism:

10 helpful tips

Here are 10 helpful tips for interacting positively with autistic children and young people:

  1. Be kind and flexible. They're often less able to adapt to new situations.
  2. Use gestures or other ways to communicate besides words.
  3. Learn how to show interest and affection in ways they like.
  4. Try to help them communicate by using Signalong, Makaton or social storyboards.
  5. Be patient, they may need more time to process information.
  6. Use positive reinforcement. Praise or reward good behaviour.
  7. Stick to the same bedtime routine , and remove any bright lights to help with sensitivity
  8. Don't take things personally if their responses are blunt.
  9. Ask siblings to be involved in activities to support their autistic brother or sister.
  10. Plan activities for weekends and holidays in advance and share those plans.

Download Ambitious about Autism's parent toolkit which contains further tips, templates for appointments and meeting checklists.

Additional support

For more information about autism, you can read or watch one of the following:

If you're a young person and you think you might be autistic you will need to be referred for an assessment by a GP for a formal diagnosis.

Ambitious Youth Network have put together some great resources for young autistic people like themselves. Their videos and blogs, all written by or featuring autistic young people themselves, explain diagnosis, autistic identity and their life in general.

Or, if you are the parent of a teenager, visit the Aspris website to understand the signs and symptoms of autism in teenagers.

If you are an adult (over 18) and you think you're might be autistic, find out what support is available for you.

Whilst diagnosed autism is more common in boys, autism is often missed in girls.

Autistic girls are often shown to be better at masking their autism in public, and therefore do not get diagnosed. This means that they often miss out on the support that can help them to understand their challenged, build skills and excel in school.

Autistic girls:

  • are often described as quiet or shy
  • have difficulty with social communication
  • have difficulty with their feelings when frustrated, they may be disruptive or may not know how to deal with their emotions
  • are passionate about specific interests, for example they may talk endlessly about a favourite TV show character, props, or actors, but know little or nothing about the show itself
  • are unusually sensitive to sensory challenges
  • rely heavily on others to guide and speak for them
  • have a hard time making or keeping friends.

Additional support

For more information about autism and girls, you can watch:

Or you can visit one of the following websites to find out more:

Autistic children and young people may sometimes 'mask' their differences and anxieties in order to try and fit in with others around them.

Although many boys mask their behaviour it can be more common in girls. With many studies showing that girls are often better at masking, therefore they may miss out on diagnosis and support.

Whilst you may see your child or young person's behaviour at home, and are aware of how they act, in an environment that could be loud, busy or unknown to them, they could mask their differences.

Examples of masking are:

  • hiding or reducing their personal interests
  • hiding a jiggling foot, or changing a motion to a less obvious one
  • copying smiles and facial expressions of others
  • forcing or faking eye contact during conversations
  • preparing jokes or phrases ahead of time to use in conversation
  • pushing through intense sensory discomfort including loud noises.

Masking can help them to feel safe, however it can take its toll on themselves and can lead to a burnout. This could include:

  • feeling exhausted
  • increased stress or anxiety
  • change in self perception, for example not feeling their true self.

To support your child or young person you can:

  • ensure they have a period of downtime on their own when they come home from school or a new environment
  • allow them to focus on their special interest
  • support them with sensory activities
  • share any concerns you have with your child or young person's school. Ask them if they can have additional sensory breaks to help if they are overwhelmed with school.

Planning a day out is exciting, but there can be extra things to consider when travelling with your autistic child or young person.

The following helps you to prepare them for your day out:

  • Remember to bring sensory aids such as ear defenders, comfort blankets, toys or quiet fiddle toys if they need them.
  • If they have an autism awareness card, take it with you so you can inform any staff or support that your child may be acting a little differently.
  • Ask for support at the destination, whether this be the cinema, theatre, museum or airport.
  • Make sure that you take any medications your child or young person requires.
  • Put together a visual guide, or show your child or young person photos or videos where they are going.
  • Prepare a timetable in advance, taking into consideration any intense interests, repetitive behaviour or routines they have.
  • Think about what situations they may need to understand (such as delays or unavoidable changes to travel plans) and how you can use social stories to help them prepare. You may find it easier to use a social story creator.

Visit our days out and activities page to find autism friendly days out in Kent.

Find autism friendly groups in Kent.

Autistic people can often have trouble sleeping. There are a range of reasons for this, which include:

  • difficulties relaxing or winding down from a busy day
  • decompressing from masking
  • desensitizing from sensory overload experiences
  • irregular melatonin levels.

To help to support your child or young person in their sleep you can:

  • keep a sleep diary to establish any unusual patterns of sleep and identify factors which may be influencing your child’s ability to sleep
  • use visual supports or social stories to help explain why sleep is important
  • have dark curtains or black-out blinds
  • remove any distractions in the room
  • use scented oils that your child finds relaxing
  • use relaxation techniques such as having a bath, massage or quiet time to help your child wind down before bedtime
  • block out noises using ear plugs or listen to music through headphones
  • remove labels from bedding and night clothes, or try bedding and nightclothes made from other materials
  • watch this helpful video from Youtuber 'Coming Home to Autism' to see useful tips for getting your child to sleep
  • learn from Dr Rachel Hussy, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist to find out how to create the right environment to sleep.

Visit the National Autistic Society to read more about autism and sleep.

Current studies of autism and sleep

North East London NHS Foundation Trust (NELFT) have worked closely with a researcher at University College London and a talented group of autistic young people to create a leaflet and animation about what helps autistic teenagers to get a good night’s sleep.

Download the leaflets and watch the video explaining the study.

Remember, autism is different for everyone. What happened to other people might not be the same for you or your child. Therefore you may wish to reach out to a local group or charity for additional support.

Find out what support before, during and after diagnosis is available near you.