Challenging misconceptions about autism in children

A girl with light hair puts her hands over her ears and closes her eyes.

By helping children to understand the things they find difficult, we can arm them with coping strategies to successfully navigate their daily lives.

 

How we talk about autism 

Autism is a form of neurodivergence which can affect how children communicate and process sensory information. Autistic children might also engage in restrictive or repetitive behaviours which can help them cope with everyday life, but which people around them might not understand. Autism manifests differently in everyone, so it’s important to keep an open mind about young people’s experiences. 

The way we talk about autism and neurodiversity is important because it can shape how children see themselves and their futures. Autism has historically been misrepresented in the media, which can stigmatise getting a diagnosis and make it harder for autistic children to find role models they relate to. Autistic girls in particular are more likely to be overlooked, because they may not have stereotyped behaviours which are typically based on the experiences of boys.

For many children, an autism diagnosis may be a tool for understanding themselves better and for communicating their needs to those around them. Some autistic young people may also identify as having a disability, either due to a co-occurring condition, or because their support needs have a significant impact on their lives. However, in many cases it’s possible to make changes so that a situation or environment is accessible for everyone. 

 

Co-existing conditions in children with autism

Although autism is not a mental health condition itself, over 7 in 10 autistic people have one or more mental health conditions. Nearly half of autistic children have an anxiety disorder and half of all autistic people will experience depression. Traditional interventions may not be as effective in autistic children, so it’s important to engage with young people about what they think would help them.

Autistic children may experience difficulties at school as a result of social situations, learning differences or difficulties processing sensory information. Almost half of autistic people have a learning disability and 3 in 10 may also have ADHD. This can make it more difficult for children to engage in a learning environment, or to express how they are feeling when they need help.

When an environment doesn’t make space for autistic children, they may feel they have to suppress their identities to fit in. Masking is where autistic children learn to imitate the behaviour of others, even in front of their own parents. Over time this can lead to low self-esteem and autistic burnout, which is why early intervention support is so important.

 

Celebrating autism in children

In a world which is designed for people who have a neurotypical experience, it’s no surprise that autistic children are more likely to face additional challenges in life. It’s also not helpful to pretend that these barriers don’t exist. However, by helping children to understand the things they find difficult, we can arm them with coping strategies to successfully navigate their daily lives. 

Just like anyone else, a child with autism will have strengths as well as challenges. For example, some autistic people experience an excellent attention to detail, a determined focus on topics that interest them, an unwavering loyalty to friends, and in contrast to common misconceptions, a high level of empathy. It’s therefore important to challenge limiting beliefs about autism and to support young people to pursue the activities they enjoy. 

Autistic children can be much more vulnerable to experiencing mental health conditions, and that’s why it’s important to provide early intervention support and to help children feel accepted. By educating other young people and adults about neurodiversity we can help make the world a more inclusive place for every child, whether or not they have a diagnosis. 

 

Nip in the Bud resources

Watch our film on autism and co-existing conditions in children.

Listen to Tylan’s story about growing up with Autism.

Read our Autism Factsheet for more information.