Communication in Children

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Asperger’s, Empathy, Hand Flapping, Obsessions, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), Repetition, Sensitivities, Social Skills

Keep in mind that just because your child has a few autism-like symptoms, it doesn’t mean he or she has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The main features of ASD are problems with social communication and interaction.Some children may present Autistic traits. However, Autism is a spectrum condition (ASD) which means that while all people with Autism share certain difficulties their condition will affect them in different ways and to varying degrees from mild to moderate to severe.

Sometimes a child may seem to lose social skills that they once had. This may be a skill such as waving goodbye. People with ASD may also experience under or over-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. In addition to some of the cognitive and behavioural difficulties, many individuals with ASD have additional medical conditions such as epilepsy, sleeplessness and mental health problems.

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So, a child MAY have ASD if they are showing signs as follows:

  • Speech developinglater than usual.When it does, the language (the use and choice of words) may not develop well
  • preferring to avoid using spoken language
  • speech that sounds very monotonous or flat
  • speaking in pre-learned phrases rather than putting together individual words to form new sentences
  • seeming to talk "at" people, rather than sharing a two-way conversation
  • taking people’s speech literally and being unable to understand sarcasm, metaphors or figures of speech
  • reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else
  • not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space
  • little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age, or having few close friends, despite attempts to form friendships
  • seeming to be aloof and/or preferring to be alone
  • not understanding how people normally interact socially, such as greeting people or wishing them farewell
  • being unable to adapt the tone and content of their speech to different social situations – for example, speaking very formally at a party and then speaking to total strangers in a familiar way
  • a lack of empathy
  • not enjoying situations and activities that most children of their age enjoy
  • rarely using gestures or facial expressions when communicating
  • avoiding eye contact
  • repetitive movements, such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth or flicking their fingers
  • playing in a repetitive and unimaginative way, often preferring to play with objects rather than people
  • developing a highly specific interest in a particular activity
  • preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to their normal routine
  • having a strong like or dislike of certain foods based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste
  • unusual sensory interests – for example, children with ASD may sniff toys, objects or people inappropriately

Part of ASD is Asperger’s Syndrome where people sometimes find it difficult to express themselves emotionally and socially and will display many of the above characteristics. In addition, children with ASD can often have unusual behaviour such as:

  • Odd mannerisms, e.g hand-flapping or other odd pointless movements.
  • Anger or aggression if routines are changed. Children with ASD may hurt themselves when they are angry by banging their head or hitting their face. Sometimes they do this to get attention.
  • Actions may be repetitive (like rocking backwards and forwards).
  • Obsessions may develop in older children and adolescents. For example, they may have interests in unusual things like train timetables and lists.
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Hand-flapping occurs when a child is happy, excited or anxious and is a form of self-stimulation.

A ‘self-stim’ is just an internal way of regulating the body. It can be done to fight boredom, anxiety or even to express excitement. We all engage in self-stimulatory behaviour - shaking our leg while sitting, twirling a pencil, and yes, even flapping our hands to express excitement. In typical developing people, this behaviour doesn't prevent us from interacting with the world around us. We can still function "normally"; we can still interact with others, engage in activities, learn from our environment, etc.

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is now considered to be part of ASD. Individuals with PDA share difficulties with others on the autistic spectrum in social aspects of interaction, communication and imagination. However, the central difficulty for people with PDA is the way they are driven to avoid demands and expectations. This is because they have an anxiety based need to be in control.

People with PDA seem to have a better social understanding and communication skills than others on the spectrum and can use this to their advantage.

The main features of PDA are:

  • resists and avoids the ordinary demands of life
  • appearing sociable, but lacking depth in understanding
  • excessive mood swings and impulsivity
  • comfortable in role play and pretend, sometimes to an extreme extent
  • language delay, often with good degree of catch-up
  • obsessive behaviour, often focussed on people

People with PDA can be controlling and dominating, especially when they feel anxious. However, they can be enigmatic and charming when they feel secure and in control. Many parents describe their child with PDA as a 'Jekyll and Hyde' character. Repetitive behaviour may also include the use of an object, such as flicking a rubber band or twirling a piece of string or repetitive activities involving the senses (such as repeatedly feeling a particular texture).

For people with Autism, however, self-stimulatory behaviour becomes their focus; whatever satisfaction they are gaining from the stim, it is far greater than anything the outside world can give them. This behaviour is often very repetitive and is difficult to stop without intervention.

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