A Guide to Autism in Children and How to Support them
Caring for an autistic child is a challenging yet hugely rewarding experience. Read our guide on how Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects children and how best to support them.
Autism, or autism spectrum condition (ASC), is a neurodevelopmental condition caused by differences in the brain.
Autism affects each child differently but can often be characterised by challenges they experience regarding communication, emotional regulation, social interactions and restrictive or repetitive behaviours. It is usually diagnosed as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), due to the unique ways each child can be affected and the wide range of symptoms.
Due to differences in how their brain processes information, children with ASD tend to interpret the world differently to others. This can present challenges in terms of their behaviour, how they interact with people and their surroundings, and can have an impact on their daily life.
What are the characteristics of autism?
As autism is presented across a spectrum, a child can display characteristics ranging from very mild up to severe. As a result, children may be affected differently in terms of their behaviour, capabilities and level of communication; however we will usually see similarities in the characteristics of those diagnosed with ASD:
- Atypical speech patterns, limited or delayed speech, or being non-verbal.
- Avoiding or struggling to maintain eye contact.
- Not smiling when people smile at them.
- Difficulty reading people’s facial expressions, emotions and body language.
- Struggling to empathise with other people’s emotions.
- Finding it hard to express their own emotions.
- Young children may also not respond to their name.
Restricted or repetitive behaviour
- Repeating movements such as rocking back and forth or flapping their hands. This is also known as ‘stimming’.
- Repeating the same speech patterns, words and phrases. This is known as echolalia.
- Having an overwhelming need for structure and routine; often struggling with change.
- Displaying intense fixation with a specific item or object.
- Having hyper-focus on a certain hobby or interest, such as a toy, character or TV show.
- Struggling to understand social boundaries such as personal space.
- Difficulty making friends and maintaining relationships. Sometimes showing a preference for being on their own.
- Issues carrying a conversation and struggling with small talk.
- Taking things literally such as phrases with two meanings e.g. “break a leg”.
Processing sensory information
- Hypersensitivity (over sensitivity) to their surroundings including sound, lights, smells, textures, tastes, and body awareness. This can cause difficulties in behaviour, anxiety or extreme reactions to certain sensory triggers.
- Hyposensitivity (under sensitivity) to sensory stimuli, meaning some children may not feel or react to pain as easily.
- Finding new environments overwhelming and difficult to process and cope with.
- Motor difficulties, such as fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and issues coordinating movements.
- Eating difficulties, including overeating, not eating enough, coughing or choking while eating, or eating non-food items. From a sensory aspect, children can also appear fussy with food; only wanting to eat certain foods or rejecting specific tastes or textures.
- Problems sleeping such as struggling to get to sleep or waking frequently. This can be a result of anxiety, hyperactivity, light sensitivity or an imbalance of sleep hormone melatonin.
- Feeling anxious or overwhelmed due to changes in routine, inability to identify or manage their feelings, or struggling with an overstimulating environment.
- Experiencing meltdowns, e.g. a complete loss of control, due to being overwhelmed.
How to support a child with autism
Children with autism have a special way of seeing the world and unique ways of thinking, and with the right support they can thrive in your care, experience positive relationships, succeed in their education, and reach their full potential.
When you are caring for a child or foster child with autism and they display challenging behaviour, it is likely to be due to one of two reasons: Either they are finding a situation or environment overwhelming, or they are struggling to communicate their needs or feelings effectively. Here is our guidance on supporting a child with autism:
Understand their characteristics
Knowing your child fully will help you to recognise how best to support them. This means being prepared with knowledge and understanding of their behaviours, likes and dislikes, sensory triggers and emotional responses.
If you will be fostering an autistic child, try to gather as much information about them as you can prior to placement. It can be especially difficult for a child in care who may feel overwhelmed at disruption they have experienced, lots of changes in routine, and having to adapt to a new environment.
Learn how to communicate with them
Meeting a child’s needs relies heavily on being able to communicate with them and understand how they are feeling and what they need. There are different methods you can use for communicating with a child with disabilities such as PECS, picture cards and prompts, Signalong and Makaton.
Try to keep language simple, speak slowly and clearly, and use simple gestures. Try not to have conversations in busy, loud or overstimulating environments. Ask one question at a time and always allow extra time for your child to process what you have said and respond. Also avoid using phrases that could be interpreted literally such as ‘I jumped out my skin’ or ‘I could eat a horse’.
Keep to routines where possible
Following a routine and being consistent can help a child with autism who struggles with change. Daily structure such as keeping a morning routine, daily schedule or specific meal times can really help, as well as being aware of any break in routine or last minute changes to plans so you can help your child to navigate these.
Visual timetables can also be a powerful tool for children with autism, especially at home. These can help to provide structure, reduce anxiety, support communication, encourage independence, and increase engagement.
Help develop their friendships and social opportunities
Make sure you support your child or foster child without putting any pressure on them or forcing them into social situations. It can take time to build social skills, but you can try to support them by attending family events and support groups at Fosterplus, asking for support from their school, and following online autism forums for ideas and advice.
Support their hobbies and interests
Children with autism will often form fixations with a specific interest or object. This may seem excessive but if it is appropriate and harmless, then helping them explore and find happiness in it can really benefit them. Alongside this, it is also good to offer opportunities to experience new interests and hobbies so they can discover new things to enjoy.
Set up a safe space in the home
For a child with autism that affects their sensory processing, it can really benefit them to have a safe and quiet space in the home where they can go when they feel overwhelmed. Depending on their needs, this could be clutter-free, include neutral tones and soft furnishings, and feel calm and comforting, or it could include bright colours and noise, with small spaces they can feel secure in. Whichever suits them best, be sure to make use of this space if you notice your child becoming dysregulated or overwhelmed.
Help them during meltdowns
If your child feels overwhelmed, or reaches a point of being out of control with their emotions, there are a few things you can do to help calm them. Try turning down any bright lights, play calming music or let them wear headphones, or offer them objects for distraction such as fidget toys. It can help to familiarise yourself with things that may trigger them and try to plan ahead with any activities or routines to help them feel safe and comfortable.
Support healthy eating
Firstly, it can help to follow a routine with mealtimes to avoid your child feeling anxious. If they appear fussy around certain types of foods, try to offer ‘safe’ foods that they are comfortable with alongside any new foods, to encourage them to try new things without being overwhelmed. If you are worried about their eating habits, keep a food diary to record any patterns – and always speak to your social worker if you are concerned.
Encourage good sleep
Having a consistent bedtime routine can really support a child with autism. If they are struggling with sleep, you can make sure their bedroom is dark and quiet, ensure their bed is comfortable without too many cushions or toys, and try playing relaxing music before bed. Some children may also benefit from a weighted blanket or tight sheet. Your social worker will be able to offer advice and guidance, if you notice any reoccurring sleep issues.
It is important to accept your child and their differences relating to autism; acting with patience, love and nurture. Understanding that there may always be things that they cannot help or will struggle with, but recognising positives in their progress, no matter how small, will help enormously.
Support for foster parents
Fosterplus provided full, tailored support to all foster families. Here are some of the resources you will benefit from while caring for an autistic foster child:
- Your supervising social worker will be there to fully support you and provide guidance and resources to help support the child in your care.
- Each foster child will have an individual care plan, as well as meetings to identify what support is needed and any additional resources that need to be in place.
- A child with a diagnosis of ASD may be entitled to benefits such as Disability Living Allowance so speak to your social worker about how to apply.
- Fosterplus provide a 24 hour helpline, every day of the year, so you can always get in touch with the team if you need support.
- Extensive, ongoing training, including specialist areas such as Disability Awareness, Theraplay, Autism Awareness and Neurodiversity.
- Regular support groups with other foster families experiencing similar challenges, so you can share advice and support.
- A generous fostering allowance to help you meet the needs of your autistic child.
- Support with education via the child’s school’s special educational needs coordinator (SENCO), which can include help from a teaching assistant, additional guidance or tutoring, and use of a ‘quiet space’ in the school.
Could you foster a child with autism?
Fostering an autistic child is an amazing and rewarding role, yet there continues to be a huge shortage of foster carers applying to care for children and young people with ASD.
A 2017 report by the National Children's Bureau found that children with disabilities, including autism, are more likely to be placed in out-of-area care and experience multiple placements than children without disabilities. If you could offer these children a safe and nurturing home, they would be able to experience the stability of a loving family that is closer to their home, as well as fewer disruptions of being moved frequently.
Additionally, National Autistic Society reported in 2016 that approximately 40% of children waiting for a new permanent family have a disability such as autism. Without families with the skills and knowledge to care for them, many of these children will end up in residential care units instead.
When you foster a child with additional needs like autism, the care and support you provide will be invaluable and completely transform their life.
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