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But he doesn’t look autistic…

date March 10, 2020Cheryl Warren

So, what does autism look like?  I couldn’t tell my son was autistic just by looking at him. But I could tell my son was autistic from his social skills, or more to the point, the lack of them. I could tell by his mannerisms and behaviours. Very rarely did we get through a day without a meltdown or a long discussion on what was going to happen next, what was for dinner and how I had to make sure the beans didn’t touch anything else on the plate.

Autism is a spectrum and that in itself creates some confusion and a mixed level of understanding.  Every individual diagnosed with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) or those not yet diagnosed, remains just that, an individual.  Yes, there are traits that help us to identify ASD, but each individual has individual ways that it shows its hand.


The challenges of autism

Autism is a lifelong disability that impacts on the way individuals communicate and interact in society. As a parent of a child with ASD and also Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), every single day is a challenge and every day actually starts the day before. The plan of the next day has to be discussed and questioned and all eventualities explained. Amongst many things, with ASD comes a huge level of anxiety as the world can be difficult and extremely overwhelming to understand and be part of.

 Little girl covering her ears

Parents of children with autism, including myself, have to fight every day to get the support we need. However, if the understanding and support for children and families is there from the beginning, from their early years setting, the positive impact on the ability to keep fighting and know someone is right there with them will go a long way.

Nursery activity with children

Signs of autism

Autism is predominantly linked with social and language development. Individuals typically face challenges with understanding social cues and social boundaries and also communication with others. However, as the term ‘spectrum’ suggests, the impact severity of the challenges are different in each child. At one end of the scale you may have a child who is completely non-verbal, with no eye contact nor connection with others. At the other end, you may have a child who is very articulate and can occasionally make eye contact with adults.


Children with autism may:

  • Have difficulty understanding other people’s feelings or their own
  • Not play ‘pretend’ games
  • Want to be alone
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Flap their hands, rock their body or pace up and down (stimming)
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
  • Avoid physical contact
  • Demonstrate little awareness of danger
  • Line up toys or other objects

Image of toys lined up

What can you do?

As early years practitioners we need to build a picture of the child we have concerns about. Log any behaviours that are outside of the ‘norms’ of their developmental stage. Record any meltdowns and try to identify additional triggers. But also monitor any areas of development which they are excelling in. Many children with ASD have areas of real interest that can lead to higher levels of understanding than their peers.  For example, a two-year old may be able to count to 100, or recognise and name all the letters of the alphabet.

Early years practitioner showing a child a drawing

Providing support for parents

Parents first and foremost need your understanding, time and your support, this can be by far the most difficult of times for parents and a they need a practitioner who is knowledgeable and non-judgemental. Parents can often feel like they have failed or done something wrong and will be going through a range of high intense emotions. They will be seeking guidance from a professional they know well and who they trust. Try to:

  • Build positive relationships with your parents, be open in your communication and be honest.
  • Know the support available for parents in your area.
  • Make effective links with your SEND advisor.
  • Complete effective assessments to ensure you can clearly see the strengths and areas of challenge in the child’s development.
  • Provide clear, achievable targets in the child’s support plan and review them regularly.
  • Build your knowledge of strategies that might help parents out of the setting.


About Cheryl Warren

Cheryl has worked within the childcare sector for over 25 years in a range of roles. She is now an early years consultant and trainer and uses all her knowledge and skills to support practitioners in their everyday work, sharing her passion for quality provision to enable children in all types of day care to receive the best care and opportunities from those who look after them.

Cheryl’s passion is the provision of SEND, specifically for children with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. Cheryl’s eldest son is autistic and she brings together her personal experiences and professional knowledge to enable practitioners to understand the importance having a working understanding of the disorder and practical skills that can be used in an early years environment to support children and families.

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