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Caring for a child with autism

4-minute read

Autism is a condition that affects the way a child relates to their environment and other people. Learning how to care for a child with autism, and knowing where to get help, can make things easier for parents and carers, and most of all for the child.

Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term that includes all the different types of disorder. However, often ASD is simply referred to as 'autism'.

What is autism?

Children with autism have a disability that affects the brain. For some children, that disability is mild. For others, it is severe.

The term “spectrum” is used to emphasise that autism presents differently in every single person. People with autism have a wide range of challenges as well as abilities.

Children with autism might have many abilities and interests that are unaffected by autism.

But many children with autism have problems with:

  • communication
  • social interaction
  • behaviour
  • repetitive activities or restricted interests
  • dealing with sensory input

These problems are usually present from birth but become more apparent in the first three years of life and continue throughout adulthood. People don’t know what causes autism but research suggests that genes play a strong part.

Features of autism

You might wonder about autism in your young child if they:

  • are not being interested in other children
  • are slow to speak
  • don't wave or clap when others would
  • avoid eye contact
  • do the same thing over and over, like rocking, lining up objects or flapping arms
  • like routines and get upset when things change

Learn more about child development. Visit the healthdirect website for more information on autism.

What to do if your child is diagnosed with autism

First, remember that all children with autism are different, in the way that all adults with heart disease are different. A commonly used catch-phrase is that if you have seen one child with autism, you have seen one child with autism.

If your doctor thinks your child might have autism, they may refer you to a paediatrician (a doctor who specialises in children) so you can get more information and get some help. The paediatrician will do a series of tests. If your child is diagnosed with autism they will advise you about early intervention therapies and services that might help your child.

Autism can have a big impact on you, other children, and family life. It's important that you work with health and disability professionals to reduce these impacts, and that they are willing to work with you. You need an effective management and treatment plan that works for everyone.

How to care for a child with autism

Caring for a child with autism can be challenging. Children with autism often find it hard to understand simple instructions and social behaviour.

Particular treatments include:

  • speech and language therapy: to help your child communicate better
  • occupational therapy: to help them deal with everyday activities
  • psychological therapies: to help with social skills, emotions, and stress

The most important thing is that you get the help and support you need to manage life every day.

There are programs available that teach skills for parents of children with autism. There is also support from groups like Autism Spectrum Australia, Autism Awareness Australia and autism associations.

As children with autism grow older they may need more treatment. Choosing a school can be difficult, but your child has the same rights to education as all other children.

What help is available?

Learn more about disability and parenting support.

More information

The following websites have more information about young children and autism:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2019

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Need more information?

Signs of autism | Autism Awareness Australia

Autism can be diagnosed at any age. So here's a list of typical signs of autism for toddlers, preschoolers, school children and adults.

Read more on Autism Awareness Australia website

Find your state autism association | Raising Children Network

Australian autism associations support parents raising a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Use our guide to find your state autism association.

Read more on website

Autism & behaviour | Raising Children Network

Need help with behaviour for autistic children? Get information to help with difficult behaviour, anxiety, confidence and more.

Read more on website

Autism communicating & relationships | Raising Children Network

Autistic children have trouble communicating. Our resources can help you build relationships and improve communication.

Read more on website

Autism therapies & services | Raising Children Network

Need info on therapies and services for autistic children and teenagers? Find videos and articles on interventions, financial support and more.

Read more on website

Communication in children with autism | Raising Children Network

For children with autism, communication develops step by step, so you can work step by step with your child on communication difficulties. Find out how.

Read more on website

Autism & disability services for children | Raising Children Network

Disability services can be confusing. Our guide to services for children with disability, autism and other additional needs helps you navigate the system.

Read more on website

Social skills for children with autism | Raising Children Network

Children with autism take longer than others to learn social skills. Strategies like role-play and video-modelling can help your child learn these skills.

Read more on website

Autism: school, play & work | Raising Children Network

Looking into schools for an autistic child? Get articles and videos about primary school, high school, socialising and working.

Read more on website

Primary schools for children with autism | Raising Children Network

Choosing a primary school can be tricky when your child has ASD. Here’s how to compare mainstream, autism-specific and special schools and home-schooling.

Read more on website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.