• Children and young people with autism often exhibit common traits, such as behavioural issues and difficulty in social situations

  • It's important to remember each child with autism is different, says therapist Philippa Boulter

  • If you are seeking help for your child, you can find a therapist here

There is a huge amount written about Autism and yet we actually know so little about the syndrome. We do not have answers to questions like: what are the causes of autism? Is there a therapy that can ‘cure’ autism; or is there a therapy which will sort out these difficult behaviours which are part of being autistic?

This article will discuss what we do know in relation to what might help if your child or young person has got a diagnosis of autism and is struggling to manage home or school life.

The NICE guidelines describe autism as:

‘qualitative differences and impairments in reciprocal social interaction and social communication, combined with restricted interests and rigid and repetitive behaviours, often with a lifelong impact’.

The guidelines also list the following common difficulties in children and young people who have a diagnosis of autism:

‘cognitive, learning, language, medical, emotional and behavioural problems, including: a need for routine; difficulty in understanding other people, including their intentions, feelings and perspectives; sleeping and eating disturbances; and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, problems with attention, self-injurious behaviour and other challenging, sometimes aggressive behaviour’.

As can be appreciated, these difficulties will have a huge impact on a child or young person’s life - present and future - and on the lives of those who must care for them; parents, carers and teachers.  

Another difficult factor is that the severity of the autistic symptoms are so varied. Some children and young people with autism manage friendships very well and do exceptionally well at school but some children and young people are unable to make and keep friends and have severe difficulties with learning.

Children and young people with autism are also individuals with their own temperament and character which will also influence what kind of therapies will suit them.

The other complicating factor is that research has shown that any condition which makes life more complicated for a child or young person will also increase their chance of struggling with psychological symptoms like anxiety, irritability, stress, aggression and low mood as well as the significantly increased chances of behavioural problems.

So if a family is seeking help for their child or young person, where should they turn?

The majority of research highlights the need for using sustained and specialised therapy which starts as early in life as possible. The answer seems to be to try and limit the impact of the condition on the child and young person’s life through a selection of interventions at school and by supporting parents/carers to care in a way which reduces the severity of symptoms. For example, a school might use a particular type of learning package to help autistic children and young people make the most of their education. 

The NICE guidelines do not recommend a list of these therapies because no one therapy has enough good research behind it to categorically state it will help a child or young person with autism with a particular problem but they do make general recommendations about what type of therapies and therapists should be considered. The guidelines can be accessed on line at www.nice.org.uk

An interesting idea which I came across a few years ago addresses the ‘autistic’, and ‘non-autistic' parts of the child, and many of the interventions suggested by NICE appear to work on helping the child utilise their non-autistic attributes to reduce the influence of the autistic part of themselves. This is certainly my experience of working therapeutically with children and young people with a diagnosis of autism.

I think one of the most helpful ideas that came through the NICE guidelines is the idea of finding a professional who understands the nature of autism but who also understands mental health and developmental issues and has some idea about how to help parents and carers to understand autism in relation to their particular child. This is important as well as finding someone who might be able to assist the child or young person.

It needs both someone who can think about these things in a general way but also who can think about the particular child in their particular family; ‘an individualised approach’. An approach based on the recognition that no two autistic children are the same.

Further reading

Autism and learning disabilities: what’s the difference?

6 tips for parents following an autism diagnosis

How therapists can support clients with autism

Can parents do more for their child with autism?