The picture exchange communication system PECS.
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Autism Software Mouse trial.
There are many reasons for the two conditions being confused in young children. Many children with autism display signs of hyperactivity and inattention when they start school. However, experts are very clear that as the child becomes older the apparent similarities between the two conditions will separate out. The child with autism may become more withdrawn and given the right environment their hyperactivity should wane and their difficulties with social skills will emerge. Children with AD/HD on the other hand are unlikely to become calmer with age unless they receive medication or high quality therapeutic interventions. They still develop social and communication skills and are unlikely to have the anxiety levels of a child with autism.
DSM-IV stipulates that a diagnosis of AD/HD can only be made if the child has shown signs of the condition before the age of seven and has been experiencing symptoms of:
to an extent which is developmentally deviant and for a period of at least six months.
The condition cannot be diagnosed if it occurs solely within the context of a pervasive developmental disorder such as autism. That is not to say that a child cannot have both conditions. For the reasons mentioned above it is possible that the child with autism will display signs of AD/HD but that this should not be considered as an additional diagnosis until their needs relating to their autism are addressed first.
The following hints and tips are intended to be of use whether your child has been diagnosed with both AD/HD and autism or just autism. If you are still not sure why your child has received the diagnosis they have then you should go back to the specialist who gave you the original diagnosis for further clarification. You may also wish to contact some of the parents groups listed at the end of this page for more information about AD/HD specifically.
The causes of AD/HD appear to be remarkably similar to those alleged to cause autism. This may be largely because we know so little about both of these conditions. The key similarities are that until recently many professionals thought that AD/HD only occurred as a result of poor parenting. The range of factors thought to cause AD/HD today range from the biological such as genetics and brain damage during pregnancy to the environmental such as sensitivity to certain foodstuffs. It is likely that the causes are actually bioenvironmental, that is the result of an interaction between both biological and environmental causes.
Some people have suggested that AD/HD belongs on the autistic spectrum as children with the condition have so much in common with those with autism. However, many children with AD/HD have no difficulties with communication and social skills except where these are the result of their limited functioning in other areas. That is, children with AD/HD may appear to have difficulty interacting with other children at school but this has more to do with their low self-esteem and their difficulty settling to playing or working together in a constructive way rather than an inherent problem with relating to others.
However, there are still links between autism and AD/HD. It is clear from the genetic histories of some families that some parents are only diagnosed with AD/HD after their children have been diagnosed with autism. And the two conditions are often confused at the time of diagnosis as well.
The actual diagnosis that your child has received is irrelevant here. Some children with autism will also display hyperactive behaviours and some children with AD/HD will demonstrate autistic traits. As a result they will need behavioural and other interventions that recognise this combination of needs.
Firstly you can examine what might be causing any hyperactive behaviours.
Food additives have long been known to over-stimulate some children. It is possible that children with autism are even more sensitive to these substances than other children. Checking everything for e-numbers can be very time-consuming. However it is fairly straightforward to avoid brightly coloured sweets and soft drinks and many products now advertise themselves as having no artificial colourings or flavourings.
Other stimulants that regularly affect children's behaviour include sugar and caffeine. Again removing these completely from the diet can be a pain but you can take some simple measures to reduce your child's intake of stimulants:
If implementing any of these will involve radical changes to your child's diet then do it as slowly as possible. Switching overnight may be counterproductive as it is possible that your child has a dependency on these foods.
If your child is especially sensitive to sensory stimuli such as lights, sounds and textures then environments where many of these factors interact could be extremely distracting and disturbing for them. If your child is frequently calm and only occasionally hyperactive or disruptive then it may be worth charting when and where these incidents occur to see if there is any pattern to their behaviour. Good examples of places that might over-stimulate a child include swimming pools, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants and trips to places like these may need careful planning as a result.
Firstly it is important to remember that when your child misbehaves in public it is often the result of their own stress and not a desire to be naughty. It can be very hard to keep calm and avoid getting angry even if you know your child is in distress. Planning ahead can reduce some of that stress. However, it is important to remember that long trips are always going to be difficult to manage and the chances are that if you find something stressful then your child probably feels the same way. That should not discourage people from going out and carefully managed short trips may help your child learn the skills to cope with longer trips later on.
For the more able child you can probably work with them to plan the trip so that they are aware of what incentives there are to keep calm and in control at every stage. Try talking through before each trip exactly what you are planning to do and what you expect, this will make the trip much more predictable for your child which can in turn reduce their anxiety levels. You can also write down your plans so that your child can keep them to look at and refer back to. If you write down each stage of the trip on a separate card or sheet of paper then they can then be used as visual prompts to remind your child of what is happening.
An example of a series of flash cards for planning a trip to a swimming pool could be:
This sounds strange but often people get absorbed by thinking about how difficult the whole trip will be without focussing on the specifics of what might go wrong. For example, in the case of going on the bus
Don't think: "This will be so difficult. My child might behave appallingly, and it'll be in public. People might start staring or commenting."
Instead, look at what is the worst thing that could happen: "My child could have a tantrum whilst we are on the bus."
If you can think of coping strategies for the worst thing you can imagine happening then you can probably cope with any other problems that occur.
If you have a child with a very keen interest in one subject, whatever that is, it is worth encouraging the interest. This can be a valuable motivational tool. It can also help your child to learn concentration skills and once they have developed the ability to focus on an enjoyable activity they can begin generalising it out to other areas.
Encourage your child to discuss their needs with you. They may lose interest in an activity and begin wandering after 20 minutes because they do not know how to explain what has made them lose interest. Children with autism may not realise that their teacher or parent doesn't know how bored they are. Let them know that you are happy for them to move on to something else but that they have to tell you why they want to do this. This need to explain could be very frustrating for them and it is important to avoid putting pressure on them to give a detailed and abstract explanation for their behaviour, a simple 'Don't understand' or 'Bored' is still something to work on.
Hyperkinetic activity may occur when a child with autism is unusually frustrated or wound up about something. Under these circumstances it is probably not desirable to attempt to contain the activity as they may then choose to let off steam somewhere else and in a destructive or aggressive way. Even children with low levels of functioning can be supported to do exercises, bounce on a trampoline, punch a punch bag and run around the garden in order to relieve tension. For more able children, encouraging them to go for a jog or a cycle ride in order to cool off and release some of that surplus energy might be helpful. This could also be tied in with doing a useful activity like picking up some shopping or doing a paper round so that the need to use up this energy is turned into a useful skill and something your child can feel positive about.
Remember that there are lots of positive things about having plenty of energy provided that it is channelled in the right directions. However, for families it can also have serious disadvantages. Fundamentally a child with hyperactive behaviours will need certain types of behavioural support whether or not they have autism as well. Their families may also need plenty of respite and support and it is important that families have their support needs addressed even if there are question marks hanging over the diagnosis.
The most widely known drug used to treat AD/HD is Ritalin. This is a stimulant drug that acts to reduce electrical activity in the brain which in turn reduces hyperactivity. It is widely recognised as useful for children with AD/HD and has also been shown to be of some limited benefit for children with autism.
However, there are many people who advocate against the use of Ritalin. They argue that Ritalin is used to prevent families and schools address the real issues of providing appropriate support and education. This is a very valid argument particularly for children who have Asperger syndrome. Many parents have expressed concern that their children have been mis-diagnosed with AD/HD when in fact they are showing hyperactive behaviours as a way of coping with their frustration at school where their needs are not being met.
Some parents opt to use Ritalin as a way of controlling their child's symptoms for a short time whilst they address some of the behavioural issues affecting their child. This breathing space way of using medication can be very effective provided people are clear that that is what they are looking for from the outset.
If you are attempting this it is important to bear the following points in mind
© The National Autistic Society 2003