Supporting Loved Ones With Autism: Questions and Answers

Autistic Asian boy put head on hand, holding colorful jigsaw puzzle as symbol of autism spectrum for World Autism Awareness day.

By Sarah O’Kelley, Ph.D.

Q: What are some signs and symptoms of autism, and when do they normally appear?

A: An autism diagnosis is based on the absence of certain typical behaviors and the presence of atypical behaviors in two main areas: weaknesses in social communication skills, and the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. Most of the signs and symptoms of autism are observed before age 3, with many noted before the age of 12-18 months. Many families notice that their child is not speaking around the time of their first birthday.

Other symptoms of autism include:

  • Poor social communication skills, such as limited eye contact
  • Reduced affect and enjoyment (i.e. young children with autism are less likely to direct facial expressions at others or look back and forth at other people’s faces when enjoying an activity)
  • Not directing the attention of others
  • Limited use of gestures (i.e. pointing to show something interesting) and poor imitation skills
  • Not playing with toys or not using them as intended (i.e. opening and closing doors repeatedly or spinning the wheels of a toy car rather than rolling it around)
  • Repetitive motor mannerisms (i.e. hand/arm flapping or repetitive whole-body movements)
  • Sensory challenges (i.e. being overly sensitive and under-responsive)

Q: What are some misconceptions about autism?

A: One of the biggest misconceptions is that autism looks the same in everyone. Given the range of behaviors that may factor in to the diagnostic criteria for autism, there are numerous ways that autism can present differently from person to person, and these features and behaviors can change throughout life. There isn’t any one symptom that stands alone in the autism diagnosis, and an autistic person could exhibit skills and symptoms across the “spectrum”. Some combinations of autism symptoms create challenges and limitations and have a tremendous impact on daily life, while others are enough to qualify for an autism diagnosis but don’t affect daily life as much and are less noticeable to others.

Q: What does Autism Awareness Month mean to you, and why is it important?

A: In recent years, the focus on autism has evolved from “awareness” to “acceptance”. I encourage others to learn more about terms related to autism, especially those highlighted by the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. From my perspective as a professional specializing in autism, Autism Awareness Month in April provides a chance to focus on understanding autism across the lifespan and bring together self-advocates, families, and communities to celebrate and support one another in many ways. I enjoy connecting with community organizations focused on autism through events such as autism- and sensory-friendly Birmingham Barons games, autism walks throughout the state, and many more.

Q: How can loved ones and friends support people in their lives with autism?

A: Many families feel isolated and experience stigma related to having a child with autism. Some families avoid social and family gatherings and public outings with their child due to the behaviors he/she may exhibit and the negative reactions of others. Autism is one of many invisible disabilities that is often perceived as bad parenting or bad behavior, which results in being judged. Learning more about autism and the child’s strengths and weaknesses is a good place to start. Verbally acknowledging the child’s strengths is also important. Parents of a child with autism often need help, so offer to stay with the child or accompany the parents during an appointment or outing with their child.

Q: What are some resources for those living with autism?

A: Alabama established Regional Autism Networks (RANs) throughout the state to provide information and education about autism and various programs and services. The RANs are available to anyone, including family members of someone with autism, self-advocates, professionals, educators, and community members. I also encourage families to seek out information and support networks of caregivers with shared experiences. The organization called Autism Support of Alabama is a way to connect with others.

As a member of the Alabama Autism Providers Network, I can say that there is tremendous passion and energy among those who serve autistic people across their lifespan, and they are located throughout Alabama. The state does not have enough providers to meet the needs of autistic individuals and their families, but we are working hard to promote earlier autism identification and diagnoses, recruit talented providers to practice in Alabama, and increase the capacity of service providers to meet these needs, including mental health services and transition support.

Q: What are some key UAB Medicine services that you want the community to be aware of?

A: UAB Medicine is home to the Regional Autism Network (RAN) for our area, and anyone can call 205-934-1112 or email with questions or information requests. The UAB RAN frequently hosts free events, such as workshops and “lunch and learns” focused on topics such as toilet training, managing difficult behaviors, and improving sleep. For over 40 years, the UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics have been providing diagnostic evaluations and multispecialty medical care for people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Also, UAB Medicine has a large network of researchers and providers from many UAB departments and schools who train people to support and care for people with autism.

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