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Recognizing The Signs of ASD In School Aged Children

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Hi Fellow Mums of Primary School Aged Kids:


(This note is also pinned atop the ages 5-8 board. Early primary school is a very common time for the signs of ASD to really come to the forefront).


Last year, I posted related notes on the other kids & toddlers boards and have shared the information below in various forms on EB. I am trying to raise awareness of the warning signs of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which are now Australia’s most common set of developmental disorders. Now that we are wrapping up the school year, it's a good time to remind parents of what some of the potential flags are in school aged children.


ASD can be tricky to detect sometimes because there is no set profile for what autism looks like. It’s called a spectrum precisely because the blend of symptoms, and the degree to which they affect a person, can vary dramatically. What people with ASD share are (varying degrees of): (1) difficulties in social interaction, (2) difficulties with communication, (3) restricted/repetitive interests and behaviors. Very often, they show some sensory sensitivities as well.


Signs of possible ASD in school-aged children

It is not uncommon for ASD to go undetected until school age, especially with kids who have higher functioning forms of ASD -- this is especially true with Asperger's Syndrome -- check out:



For instance, ASD can be masked by giftedness. High functioning kids can often find ways to "work around" some of their deficits. Or parents might mistake ASD for “quirkiness” or social awkwardness. Here are some of the more common ways that ASD might present itself in a school aged child (this list is representative, not exhaustive and not every child with ASD will show every sign):


Communication problems

Your child may:

• have had unusual language development when they were younger (used language that is different to that used by other children their age);

• sound unusual when they speak;

• repeat words or phrases that they have heard rather than responding to them;

• refer to themselves as “you,” “she” or “he” after the age of three;

• use unusual words for their age; or

• use only limited language or talk freely only about things that interest them.


Social difficulties

Your child may:

• not be interested in playing with other children;

• try inappropriately to join in with other children’s play (for example, your child might seem aggressive);

• behave in a way that other people find difficult to understand (for example, they may not do as they are told);

• be easily overwhelmed by being around other people;

• not relate normally to adults (for example, they may be too intense or not have any relationship at all); or

• not like people coming into their personal space or being hurried.


Difficulties with interest, activities, and behaviors

Your child may:

• struggle to take part in pretend play with other children or play in which they need to cooperate or take turns;

• have difficulties in large open spaces (for example, they may stay round the edges of the playground);

• find it hard to cope with changes or situations that aren’t routine, even ones that other children enjoy (for instance, school trips or the teacher being away).


Other factors:

You child may:

• have unusual skills (for example, have a very good memory or be gifted in math or music); or

• not like the sound, taste, smell, touch of certain things.


A Twist: ASD in Girls

Adding an extra wrinkle to the warning signs above is the tendency of girls with ASD to present differently than boys. Because boys are more likely to be affected by ASD than girls, the red flags/warning signs tend to have a heavy “boy bias.” Sue Larkey, an Australian expert in ASD, has written a terrific summary of the key ways in which ASD tends to “look” different in girls than in boys (again, bearing in mind that these are generalizations):


Ten Ways Girls with an ASD differ to Boys with an ASD

1. Their special interests are usually animals, music, art, literature.


2. They often have a very good imagination which includes imaginary

friends, games, being animals or taking on persona of other girls.


3. They often see speech therapists for their speech and may be

diagnosed with specific language disorders however there is something

different about this girl no one can quite put their finger on.


4. They often play with older children or much younger children. This

play is sometimes unusual for example ‘Mums and Dads’ but she will want

to play the same role and game every time. She usually wants to be the

pet or baby, whereas most girls want to be the Mum or Dad.


5. They often have hyperlexia – the ability to read but comprehension

does not always match their reading skills. They are often the class

book worm or write stories but they write the same story over and over

changing a few characters. Many have a special interest in literature.


6. They have unusual sensory processing, like the boys, however bigger

fluctuations often going from one extreme to the other.


7. They get anxious like boys, however their anxiety is rarely physical

or disruptive. In fact many have great copying mechanisms at school

however the family see a very different child at home where the anxiety

can explode.


8. Often their difficulties with social skills are called ‘shy’,

‘quiet’, ‘solitary’.


9. They often like to organize and arrange objects. I watched one little

girl spend hours seemingly playing “My Little Ponies” however on closer

examination she was just arranging and re-arranging the horses over and



10. The main difference is there are MANY more undiagnosed girls/women

than boys/men. Currently we only diagnose 1 girl to 7 boys. In the

future it is thought by many psychologists the ratio could be more like

5 to 7 as we become more aware of this group.


What To Do If You Have Concerns

If you have concerns that your child might have ASD, the next step should be getting professional guidance. Talking to your GP can be a good place to start (and to get a referral to a specialist), but also be aware that not all GPs are up-to-speed on ASD. All the more reason for you to arm yourself with good information!


In younger children, the diagnosis process almost always involves a medical doctor (paed, developmental paed, or psychiatrist) or a panel approach that includes a medical doctor. For school aged children, it is not uncommon for psychologists to drive the assessment/diagnosis process.


There are some terrific resources to help guide parents. Two particularly valuable ones in Australia are:




http://www.autismawareness.com.au/ (includes state-by-state directory of professionals who are well versed in ASD)


Additionally, here is the link to world renowned Asperger's expert Tony Attwood's site:



Additionally, the mums who are active on the Special Needs/Disabilities board are very supportive and happy to share recommendations of great "ASD-savvy" professionals (via PM, because we aren't allowed to make explicit recommendations on the board), provide information, or answer questions. Your child doesn't have to have a diagnosis of anything for you to voice your concerns or ask questions.


(I am in Sydney and am always happy to pass along my suggestions of ASD professionals in this area).


Thanks for reading this far! :)

Edited by baddmammajamma

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Thank you so much for this!


My DD is 15. When she was in kindy at school, I suspected something like aspergers. I discussed this with the school counsellor, who agreed with me until she met DD, and then said no, she interacts well with me, it's not that at all.


Ever since then I have known that there is something different with her wiring - not really wrong, just different. Your mention of 'quirkiness' definitely rang a bell - this is how she is often seen.


Finally, this year I have finally got the SN teacher at her school on board, as she can see what I mean, and she has organised for a clinical psych from the Catholic Education Office to at least meet with her and do some pre-screening with a view to an assessment.


If she does land anywhere on the autism spectrum, she is definitely on the high-functioning end, but it still affects her closest personal relationships, and I am really hoping to get some support for her sister as well as herself, as her sister is the one most affected.


The psych who is going to meet with her agreed with me that the reason this was never picked up by a teacher before is that she doesn't make waves at school. She is well behaved, bright, and mostly gets her work done on time, so why would a teacher draw attention to her when there are so many disruptive kids to worry about?


Thanks again! :)

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Sue Heck


Edited by Nicholas Rush

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Thank you for sharing and pinning this. I suspect I was one of the girls with an ASD at school - I can tick all the boxes for a girl for myself, but thankfully not for my daughter. Which would explain why my eldest boy has ADHD. Thank you again.

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Thank you for posting. It took till our son was 8 and after the school recognised the "quirkiness" I had seen for years before we got a diagnosis.

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Thanks, Denim Angel. It's not that uncommon for kids with higher functioning forms of ASD and/or gifted + ASD to not get detected until they are well into school.


There seems to be much more information out there on helping parents/care givers recognize the more common red flags for ASD in very young children but not as much on older kids. That's one of the reasons I still try to raise awareness on the "Big Kids" board and on the Gifted & Talented thread, amongst other places!


I hope that your son is doing well. :)



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Just a bump for my friend

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Thanks for doing the above post BMJ. I have referred my SIL to it as my nephew maybe PDD-NOS, doing assessment ATM. She found it very helpful to raise her concerns to his Paed.


Also have sent the information to another friend who thinks one of her girls might be ASD. This way she might have more information to hit her Paed with as he thinks there isn't anything much going on.


Thanks again BMJ.


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Weirdly Sane

There have been a few threads lately with ASD related questions for older primary children, especially girls.


It does seem sadly that the girls seem to fly under the radar more frequently perhaps because they tend to be more able to "mask" their differences - though that's a huge generalisation I know.


There's a boy at DS's school in grade 5 - I vaguely know this child and each time I see him wandering the school grounds alone it breaks my heart to see that he's crying out for an assessment that he doesn't seem to be receiving.


To all those reading this who have niggling doubts - if in doubt, check it out!

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My daughter was diagnosed last yr, at 13, with HFA- High Functioning Autism.

I saw her as a bit highly strung, quirky, an angel at school, great student....at home different story.



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