What is Autism? Signs and Symptoms

When my son Andrew was six months old, I started to notice that he wasn’t like other babies. Unlike my friends’ infants, he constantly moved his hands and feet in a circular motion. He never babbled to himself or played in his crib, and he had no self-control when it came to feeding. He would consume five bottles of milk in one sitting if we let him.

As he grew, he had significant difficulty with change and transitions between activities. When the kids he was playing cops and robbers with wanted to move on to another game, he would fly into a tantrum.

He couldn’t maintain eye contact and lacked abstract thinking skills. Metaphors and idioms went over his head. A teacher once told him that a school rule was set in stone and Andrew asked to see the stone. 

He didn’t understand social cues, was highly anxious and often engaged in repetitive, calming self-stimulatory behaviours (I now know that this is called “stimming”), constantly rubbing his shoulders and the top of his head. 

Yet Andrew learned to read and write on time and was outgoing and funny, leading his doctor to continuously discount my concerns.

Would he have friends? Go to university? Would he be able to function in society?

When he was nine, Andrew was officially diagnosed with Autism. After all those years of my concerns being discounted by his pediatrician, I felt validated and relieved. We could finally put together a comprehensive treatment plan and get him on the right path.

Autism is a lifelong neurological and developmental condition in which a person’s brain functions differently than other people’s brains.

Children, youth and adults with autism often experience challenges with social communication and interaction, and they may engage in repetitive behaviors to self-soothe, decrease anxiety and help them process overwhelming emotions.

They may also have different ways of learning, moving and paying attention. Symptoms can vary from person to person—and can even change over time or in different situations—and they can range from mild to severe.

This range can make diagnosis difficult.

Autism is not identified by medical, laboratory or blood tests. Instead, it is diagnosed through an understanding of a child’s developmental history, behaviour and/or social interactions.

Autism has no known cause, but it is not due to bad parenting. And it crosses all racial, religious, ethnic, cultural, income, gender and social boundaries.

The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates the prevalence of autism at one in 66 children and youth in Canada, while the 2019 Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth places the number at one in 50. A number of other surveys believe that a more accurate count is one in 44 children.

Among young children, what are the signs and symptoms of autism?

There is a wide range of behaviours that might indicate a child is autistic. As Kelly West, Vice President and Head of Community Services at Kerry’s Place Autism Services, Canada’s largest autism services provider, notes, “Over the years, there have been significant advances in diagnostic capabilities and a greater understanding and awareness of autism.”

“The signs and symptoms of autism look different over time and across individuals, environmental variables and settings,” West says. “Girls have a better ability to mask their autism characteristics at an early age. Developmental differences may be more apparent as they grow, while boys tend to embody those characteristics at an early age.”  

* An important, cautionary note: Don’t be alarmed if your child shows some of these signs—diagnosis involves a range of symptoms and behaviors—but do seek professional medical advice if you’re concerned.

While the list below is not exhaustive, many autistic children display the following signs and symptoms:

There is no question that parenting an autistic child is challenging—and can feel frightening and overwhelming, too—but it can also be a joy. In spite of all his issues, Andrew faces life head-on, with determination, grit and optimism.

He has a wonderful full-time job, gets himself to and from work and has an infectious charm. He was recently at the barber and, as is his custom due to his lack of filter, chatted up everyone in the room. When he got up to leave, the barber informed him that another customer had paid for him because he was so impressed with him.  

In the autism community, we have a saying that “meeting one person with autism is meeting one person with autism”. Every child, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, is different, with their own unique capabilities and strengths.

Remember that differences in brain functioning are just that: differences, not deficits. 

Jan Stewart is a highly regarded mental health and neurodiversity advocate.  Her brutally honest memoir Hold on Tight:  A Parent’s Journey Raising Children with Mental Illness describes her emotional roller coaster story parenting two children with multiple mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Her mission is to inspire and empower parents to persevere through the most difficult of times and have hope, as well as to better educate their families, friends, health care professionals, educators and employers.

Jan chairs the Board of Directors at Kerry’s Place Autism Services, Canada’s largest autism services provider, and was previously Vice Chair at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

She spent most of her career as a senior Partner with the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder.  Jan is a Diamond Life Master in bridge and enjoys fitness, genealogy and dance.

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