Therapies and support

School years

Getting a diagnosis when your child is already at school

While autism is a condition of early childhood, some children will not be diagnosed until they reach school or even in some cases, high school.

In most cases these children and young people have less pronounced symptoms of autism. They may speak well and have no obvious learning problems. Some may even be considered gifted and talented because of their wide vocabularies and mature interests.

Other children may be from different cultures and backgrounds where autism is less well recognised.

Only when these children reach school and start mixing with teaching staff and other children do their social and educational challenges become clear.

Signs of autism in primary school aged children and teenagers

  • Talking too little or too much, with their speech dominated by their favourite topics
  • Talking in a monotonous tone and using unusual expressions
  • Talking ‘at’ others rather than having a two-way conversation; not good at ‘small talk’
  • Difficulty interpreting and using facial expressions and gestures
  • Being less aware of socially expected behaviour, for example criticising the teacher, or refusing to join in a classroom activity
  • Being easily overwhelmed in social situations and needing time alone
  • Not enjoying situations that most children like, such as school excursions
  • Trouble with co-operative play;  wanting to play the same way every time
  • Having no or few friends
  • Sometimes displaying unusual physical movements, such as touching, biting, rocking or finger flicking
  • Having unusually intense interests
  • Having a strong need to follow rules and routines and becoming upset when these change
  • Being over or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli (e.g. textures, sounds, smells, taste)
  • Sometimes displaying aggressive behaviour to avoid stressful situations
  • Anxiety is common, especially in adolescence.

Problems with learning can also become apparent. Children may have uneven mix of skills, being advanced in maths and/or reading but having poor motor skills. This may mean they struggle with handwriting and sports. As schoolwork becomes more challenging  they may have trouble keeping up with the workload.

All these things added together can make school a hard time.

Gender differences

While autism is more common in boys, we now recognise that autism can get overlooked in girls. This is especially true for girls with normal or high intelligence.

This is because girls are better at camouflaging their problems, by imitating other people when they’re socialising. Unfortunately, this can be exhausting. Their restricted interests often don’t stand out as unusual too (e.g. celebrities, pop music, fashion, horses, pets, and literature)

Girls with autism may only have one or few close friendships and be intense and possessive about those friendships. By high school they may become victims of bullying.

Undergoing a diagnostic assessment

The process for getting a diagnosis when your child is school-age is similar to the process for a younger child. You can read about this here.

Some differences may include:

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School-aged children are more likely to be involved in the assessment process; older children and adolescents may need to provide consent
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The professionals might visit the school to observe how your child interacts with the other children there
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They’ll also ask your child’s teacher to complete a questionnaire so they can get a picture of your child’s behaviour in and outside the classroom

Receiving the news

Discuss with the assessment team how you would like the diagnosis communicated. Depending on your child’s age and maturity they may or may not wish to be present at the meeting.

An autism diagnosis can provoke many emotions. You may be concerned about negative stigma and the reaction of family and friends. Or else you could feel relief that you finally have an explanation for your child’s difficulties.  

A diagnosis is important, as it leads to funding and interventions to help both your child and your family. It can often lead to greater understanding and inclusion at school.

Your reaction to the diagnosis will influence your child’s reaction. If and when you plan to tell them, wait for a time when you feel calm and in control.

As your child grows, learning about their own diagnosis can lead to having a better understanding of who they are.  It can also open the door to a community of other people on the autism spectrum.

“As parents, we did not suspect anything until he started kindergarten”