Autism is a lifelong spectrum condition and the people on it are all very different from one another, and are all individuals. They share common areas of difficulty but autism affects them in different ways. In fact there is a great saying, ‘When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’.

What is Autism?

First things first: autism is not a disease; it can’t be ‘cured’. Yes, it can be very disabling, or, in the right environment and with the right support, many difficulties can be removed. Most autistic people prefer to see it as a developmental difference; as part of who they are. Different – not less.

Autism means that a person has difficulties with social communication and interaction. He, or she, will also have restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. Lots of autistic people also have sensory issues, which mean they can experience the world very differently.

Autistic children may struggle to understand language such as sarcasm, or idioms like ‘It’s raining cats and dogs!’. They can be very literal and often think visually, so that phrase can sound pretty scary! They may not speak, at all, or for some of the time. This does not mean that they have nothing to ‘say’ – they may prefer to communicate non-verbally.

Autistic children may find social situations (like school and family parties) baffling and exhausting, and need time alone to decompress and recover. They may struggle to make or keep friendships, particularly as they move into the teenage years and beyond. In particular, girls with autism tend not to do ‘small talk’!

The world can be a very confusing place for autistic people, as they struggle to understand other people’s intentions, feelings and behaviour. This is one of the reasons they like rules – they make life clear and predictable –  and when others don’t appear to be following them, it can be even more confusing. Autistic children may also be expected to have a lot of anxiety, which may manifest itself as ‘anger’ or ‘aggression’, but this is often their method of managing this by trying to take control.

They may also have a special interest, which may last for a few days, months or even years!  Minecraft, super heroes, Lego, horses, Pokémon, certain celebrity vloggers can all be common; it isn’t necessarily the stereotypical trains or cars!  Never under-estimate the value of their special interest – it will help them relax; to learn; to be an expert; to communicate with their peers; to develop social capital.

Autism is typically thought of as a condition that affects mainly boys; the National Autistic Society says that there are 4 autistic boys to every 1 girl. However, recent research suggests that many autistic girls – particularly the girls with no cognitive learning difficulties, or who appear to have better communication skills – are ‘flying under the radar’, and that the real ratio may be as close as 2:1.  

Autistic girls in mainstream schools often appear to develop coping skills that hide their problems, such as becoming observers or social chameleons, or by internalising aggression and anxiety. At school they are quiet and try not to draw attention to themselves; they try to ‘fit in’. Some autistic boys present this way at school too.

These emotions, however, are often only kept inside until they leave school – perhaps as soon as they are out of the school gate – when they may ‘explode’. This can mean there are extreme behavioural differences in these children at home and at school, with parents often having a very different picture of their child to the teacher. Unfortunately this can mean that the very real difficulties these autistic children experience are not noticed (‘I don’t see anything’), so their needs are less likely to be met.

It is very important for parents to work in partnership with the class teacher and SENCO to build a shared understanding of the child and his or her needs. An autistic child is autistic at home and at school, and it is important that they are supported all the time – even if the difficulty can’t be ‘seen’.

Mary Van Der Merwe
Helping you understand...
Mary van der Merwe
Specialist Parenting Practitioner