Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

Week 3: Identifying and diagnosing autism


This week starts with the earliest years of a child’s life, when there may be subtle clues that a child is developing differently. Video clips illustrate what parents notice, and include some parents’ reflections on getting their children diagnosed in the 1960s. The two main current diagnostic systems are introduced, followed by clips providing parental and personal experiences of diagnosis. The week ends with a look at two key challenges for diagnosis: different presentation of autism in females, and diagnosis in world cultures with differing expectations about typical behaviour.

Now watch the video in which Dr Ilona Roth introduces this week’s work.

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_aut_1_video_week3_intro.mp4
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This week, you'll start by learning about early signs that may raise concerns about your child's development. Of course, each child develops at a different pace, but there are some typical milestones, which children later diagnosed with autism may not attain or get to very late. Not looking where someone else is looking, not making eye contact are examples of early clues that a child may be developing atypically.
However, differences like these don't necessarily imply autism and some autistic children don't show them anyway. Indeed, some parents recall that their autistic child seemed particularly advanced. I think he finds the parents early reminiscences of their infants both interesting and poignant. Autism diagnosis should happen as early as possible, but it may not surprise you to learn that accessing services often involves long delays. It's important to understand the basic principles of formal diagnosis. There's a certain amount of detail in the information here, but it's worth persevering.
Experiences of diagnosis vary. For some families it's a shock, for others a relief, and always it's the beginning of a journey. You'll learn that all too often diagnosis only happens in adulthood, especially, it seems in women. Current thinking is that autism in women doesn't always match the standard picture or that women may make efforts to mask their difficulties. The end of the week takes a quick look at diagnosing autism in cultures where resources are few. Awareness of autism is often low, diagnosis is hard to find, and Western oriented criteria may be inappropriate in cultures or ethnic groups with different assumptions about child development. You'll find plenty to think about.
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By the end of this week you should be able to:

  • describe behaviour in the first 2 years which may provide early indicators of autism
  • appreciate the contributions made by parental accounts
  • recognise internationally used diagnostic criteria and broad principles of diagnostic assessment
  • appreciate different reactions to diagnosis
  • understand challenges to diagnosis posed by gender and cross-cultural differences.

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