Autism in children and adolescents
This page provides you with information about autism in children and adolescents.
Børne- og Ungdomspsykiatrisk Afdeling (The Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) is responsible for the help provided to children and adolescents with autism in Central Denmark Region.
What is autism?
Autism is a type of developmental disorder. It is seen in children, adolescents and adults. If you have autism, you sense and experience the world differently from most other people. For example, this means that you have greater difficulty understanding and participating in social contexts.
Autism is characterised by difficulties in three primary areas:
- mutual social interaction
- particular behaviour and interests characterised by routines or repetitions and special areas of interest and/or movement patterns.
Studies show that approximately 1-2 per cent of a population has autism spectrum disorders. That means 1-2 in 100 people.
The number of people receiving the diagnoses has been soaring in recent years. Part of the explanation for this is that healthcare professionals and parents have become better at detecting children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. In addition, it is of importance that people with milder symptoms are today also diagnosed with autism.
The degree of difficulties in autism can vary widely from person to person. We are consequently dealing with a spectrum. In this text, we will therefore use the term ‘autism spectrum disorders’.
Here, at one end of the scale, there are individuals who only experience light difficulties. At the other end of the spectrum, severe symptoms are seen. Persons with autism who are at this end of the spectrum therefore need life-long intensive support.
The symptoms may also be different depending on whether they are found in a child, an adolescent or an adult. They may also differ in girls and boys.
Autism spectrum disorders will be present throughout the autism sufferer’s life. However, it is important to remember that there are good opportunities for developing skills, both socially and vocationally. However, some will need life-long support to a greater or lesser extent.
Within the ICD-10 diagnosis system, autism spectrum disorders comprise the following diagnoses:
- Infantile autism
- Atypical autism
- Asperger’s syndrome
- Other pervasive developmental disorder
- Unspecified pervasive developmental disorder.
The specific diagnosis depends on the degree of severity of the symptoms and at what age they manifest themselves. Some are first diagnosed with autism as an adolescent or adult. Within the next years, Denmark will switch to an updated diagnostic system – ICD-11.
What causes autism?
Autism spectrum disorders are caused by an abnormal development in the brain. The reasons remain uncertain. They are probably associated with hereditary factors. These factors are of importance to whether an individual develops autism spectrum disorder, possibly in combination with effects during pregnancy and birth.
Examination for autism
If a suspicion arises that your child is having difficulties, several collaborating parties often become involved. This may, for example, be the child’s kindergarten or school. Perhaps the municipality’s Pedagogical Psychological Counselling Service (Pædagogisk Psykologisk Rådgivning (PPR)) and caseworker will also participate. Together, you discuss how your child can best be supported in his or her everyday life in relation to the challenges.
If, after the action taken, there is still a suspicion that your child has an autism spectrum disorder, he or she may be referred to the Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for examination.
Following an agreement with you, your doctor or a psychologist from the municipality may refer your child for examination. In addition, infants may be referred for an examination by health visitors.
The examination is conducted in cooperation with you and your child. It will often also involve collaboration with your child’s educators or teachers.
As a general rule, the examination will be done on an outpatient basis. This means without hospitalisation. However, in some cases, short-term hospitalisation may be required. The examination is performed by an interdisciplinary team. The following may form part of the team:
- child and youth psychiatrists
- social workers.
An examination for autism spectrum disorders may consist of, for example, interviews, observation and psychological tests.
If there is a suspicion that your child has other psychiatric difficulties, it is assessed whether it is also relevant to examine these. Assessments made before the referral are included in the overall assessment.
Children and adolescents with autism have a high incidence of other child psychiatric difficulties, developmental disorders and rare diseases. This concerns a number of different conditions or diseases. It is not uncommon for the child to have one or more of these conditions along with his or her autism.
If there are signs that your child also has other disorders than autism, it is important to establish these concomitant disorders. This is important in order to be able to provide the right treatment.
The concomitant disorders often make the child’s difficulties more complex overall. For example, a condition such as ADHD may, in some sufferers, ‘overshadow’ symptoms of autism and make it harder to make a diagnosis.
Autism sufferers with normal intelligence often experience anxiety, and their ability to function in everyday life can be greatly impaired. It is therefore important also to provide treatment for anxiety.
Treatment of autism
Autism spectrum disorders are something you have to live with all your life. It may, however, be very different how these disorders manifest themselves. For example, your child’s age, other difficulties and conditions in everyday life are of importance. The treatment is therefore adapted to your child’s situation. Likewise, finding your child’s motivation for learning new things is important.
The action taken is based on a social pedagogical approach. Here, the focus is on support for well-being, learning and development. Treatment methods used include:
- structured pedagogy
- visual support
- compensatory communication methods.
The treatment is most often provided in the child’s near environment. This means the child’s home, school or day care. For small children, the focus is primarily on you as parents and professionals around the child. Here you are taught how to use the different treatment methods.
Teaching in mental disorders and developmental disorders is called psychoeducation. Psychoeducation is often offered to both you and your child.
The purpose of psychoeducation is to provide you with knowledge and understanding of autism spectrum disorder. Sometimes, the psychoeducation is offered via an app with various relevant topics.
Autism spectrum disorders cannot be treated with medication. However, medication may be necessary for treatment of concomitant diseases. Pharmacological treatment must be started up by a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry or in the Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, The specialist must monitor the treatment for the first period. It will subsequently be handled by your general practitioner.
Advice for relatives
As parents, it is important that you accept having a child with special needs. As parents, you are a very important part of the treatment, because you know your child and his or her difficulties best. Children with autism spectrum disorders need special support to develop and become self-reliant.
Being a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder is demanding. You should therefore accept help and support from the network. As a family, you may also need extra support and relief from the municipality.
Advice for parents:
- Seek knowledge about autism spectrum disorders
- Participate in psychoeducation and courses
- Ask if there is anything that you do not understand.
- Accept help and relief
- Pay special attention to the needs and reactions of any siblings
- Form part of communities with others. Several patient and carer associations organise groups for parents.