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March 2004

Autism – How to help and understand your child

This fact sheet was jointly written by the NSW Multicultural Health Communication
Service and the Autism Association of NSW.

What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disability that affects the way a person is able to process
information. This affects your child’s ability to:
• Understand and use language to communicate
• Interact socially
• Understand and respond to activities and objects in the environment
• Respond to sensory stimuli. For example, a child may be scared of loud
noises or only eat certain foods and wear certain clothing
• Learn

What causes Autism?

Autism is caused by abnormal development of some parts of the brain. Sometimes, this
follows from an underlying genetic disorder. Often no cause for the abnormal brain
development can be found. Autism is not caused by the way your child has been
reared. Nor is there anything you could have done to prevent it. A paediatrician can
advise you if any tests are appropriate to find a cause for your child’s autism.

What treatments are available for autism?

Currently there are no medical or behavioural treatments available that will cure autism.
One treatment that benefits all children with autism is a structured educational program
that focuses on developing communication and social skills, including social play skills.1
Such a program should be provided before the age of five.

How do I understand my child with autism?

It is important to understand how your child with autism communicates and learns (as
this will be different from the way your other children communicate and learn). People
who can help you learn about your child include your child’s early intervention teacher
or speech pathologist.

They will help you to understand why your child behaves in certain ways and help you
choose a strategy that works for your child.

For example children with autism:

• Are visual learners - they are better at processing information that is
shown to them rather than told to them2

(Janzen, 1999)
(Hodgdon, 1995)
• Have difficulty understanding long sentences and instructions
• Can learn and respond to rules and routines, especially if they are
presented visually
• May have good memory skills, especially for things that they have seen
or heard repeatedly. They are sometimes able to remember the whole
dialogue of a favourite video or story in a book or remember the route to
preschool. Because skills learnt in this way often occur without any
accompanying understanding, you will need to check in different ways
that your child has really learnt and understood the new skill or

How do I introduce visual objects to support learning and communication?

There are four types of visual objects to support learning and communication. These are
listed below and range from (whole real objects) easy to understand to more difficult to
understand (line drawings).

(Easy to understand) 1. Whole real items (eg. a juice carton)

Ð 2. Pieces of items (eg. the label from the juice
Ð carton)
Ð 3. Photos (eg. photo of the juice carton)
(More difficult to understand) 4. Line drawings. (eg. simple drawing of a carton)

The aim is to teach your child to gradually work towards the more difficult to understand
visual object. It will improve your child’s ability to communicate. However, introducing
visual objects that are too abstract for your child will not support their understanding of
language. It is therefore important to start with whole real items and then gradually
move to photographs before moving to line drawings.

If you are unsure how to begin to use visual objects to support learning and
communication with your child at home, contact your child’s teacher or a speech

How do I deal with problem behaviours?

One thing to remember when addressing behavioural issues is that problem behaviour
may represent a communication. When trying to manage your child’s behaviour, it is
important to understand the possible messages behind the behaviour:
• Your child may be trying to express feelings such as fear, anxiety,
frustration, illness or tiredness.
• The behaviour may be part of your child’s need to be stimulated. This
includes repetitive behaviours such as spinning, rocking, head-banging
or lining-up objects.
• However, it is not always possible to find a reason for every problem

Strategies to manage or change your child’s problem behaviour may include:

• Changing the environment so that it makes more sense to your child. For
example, introducing structured play activities and routines into the home.
• Teaching your child new communication skills so that your child is able to
express their needs and feelings. This usually includes introducing visual
objects to assist with communication as discussed above.
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Website: Autism – How to help and understand your child
• Treating any possible medical problems
• Teaching your child to relax by introducing calming activities such as
swinging, music, TV/videos, and allowing time alone without any
demands placed on them
• Introducing strategies to help with any changes to regular routines.
• Particular medications can benefit anxiety and repetitive behaviours

Who can I contact for more information?

Parents find it helpful to attend information sessions or courses about autism and to talk
with other parents who have a child with autism. Listed below are some organisations or
services that may be able to help you.

• Autism Association of NSW []

• Autism Information Line
• Early Childhood Intervention Info Line
To contact the above services see your Sydney White Pages.

Ask your doctor to refer you to:

• The Early Intervention Support Team in your area (Department of Aging,

Disability & Home Care) – if your child has a moderate intellectual disability.
• Your local Community Health Centre
• A paediatrician

If you need help making phone calls in English, ring the Translating and Interpreting
Service (TIS) on 131 450.

You can find more health information in your language on the Multicultural
Communication website at

Telephone numbers are correct at time of publication but are not continually updated.
You may need to check the numbers in the telephone directory.

Suggested Readings
Dodd, Susan: Managing Problem Behaviours. MacLennan & Petty, Sydney, 1994

Hodgdon, Linda: Visual Strategies for Improving Communication. Quirk Roberts

Publishing, Michigan, 1995

Howlin, Pat Treating Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome. A Guide for Parents
and Professionals. Chichesser: Wiley (1998)

Janzen, Janice E.: Autism: facts and strategies for Parents. Therapy Skill Builders,
USA, 1999

Sussman, Fern: More Than Words. A Hanen Centre Publication, Toronto, 1999

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Website: Autism – How to help and understand your child
You can find more multilingual information on autism at the following websites:

• Autism: An introduction for parents and carers (National Autistic Society)
(Available in Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu)

• What is Autism? (Autism Association of NSW)
(Available in English, additional languages coming)

• Visual strategies for improving communication – for purchase
(Available in English and Spanish)

• Overview of autism (Center for the Study of Autism)
(Available in Chinese, English, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish)

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Website: Autism – How to help and understand your child