Dr Mahfud Ben-Hamida, Consultant Community Paediatrician with NCIC, is this week raising awareness of autism to mark the 60th World Autism Acceptance Week 2022 (28th March to 3rd April) and 15th annual World Autism Awareness Day, which takes place on April 2nd.
Autism-friendly events and educational activities take place all month, aiming to increase understanding and acceptance of autism, fostering worldwide support and inspire a kinder, more inclusive world. This year’s focus is inclusive education.
Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that affects how people see the world and how they interact with others.
Dr Ben-Hamida said: “We know that autistic children see, hear and feel the world slightly differently from others.
“Autism is a spectrum; it represented by a wide variety of presentations. It is a lifelong condition and it is not disease or illness.
“There is no vaccination and there is no cure currently for it.”
“The reason why it is important to have an assessment for autism if you think your child is affected by the condition is that families and children can develop a better understanding of this condition."
Rachael James, Specialist Speech and Language Therapist at NCIC, said: “Many autistic adults explain that a diagnosis can have a helpful impact by allowing them to develop a positive sense of self.
“The child can avoid the risk of being isolated and developing mental health problems later on.
“It also helps to identify the child’s style of learning that he/she will need in the school establishment.
“It is not necessary that every child with autism will need an Education Health Care Plan but sometimes the style of delivering the knowledge needs to be adjusted and the teaching style or environment might need to be slightly modified.”
Dr Ben-Hamida added: “With the right support, children with autism can do well at school.
“Children with autism have a 17% chance of being excluded from school.
“Just under half of the 17% get excluded more than once and four per cent are at risk of being permanently excluded from one or more schools.
“One in three autistic adults may experience mental health problems due to lack of support.”
If your child is experiencing difficulties in school then it is worth talking to your school and also looking at Cumbria County Council’s website for information and support.
The Local Authority’s SEND Teaching Support Team have a range autism specific advice and resources for professionals included on their website.
Referral to the service
We accept referrals with sufficient evidence and concerns to the autism assessment; currently this is through the GP or from a School SENCO.
Usually the referral will get triaged by the Community Paediatrician who will send parents a questionnaire.
Parents have the opportunity to fill the questionnaire in over a few weeks and it is important for the questionnaires to be returned as it gives the Community Paediatrician a good understanding about the child.
After this parents and child will be invited to a consultation with the Community Paediatrician and this is to look for whether the child’s symptoms can be explained by Autism or other similar related conditions.
In the consultation the Community Paediatrician will go through lots of details such as background, developmental history and also to try to identify signs of autism.
After that the Community Paediatrician will discuss with parents and child the outcome and agree a way forward.
If Autism assessment is agreed then we usually ask for more information from the school and this is because we see autism as a social communication disorder.
If there isn’t much information being fed back from school, the Community Paediatrician will subsequently refer the child to the Speech and Language Therapy Team given it is a communication issue.
If there still isn’t enough evidence then we usually refer to the Education Psychologist or Specialist Advisory Teacher for further assessment.
Autism assessment teams have monthly meetings discussing these findings and looking at the evidence of the autism assessment and the information we gain from other agencies who have involvement with the child. The Specialist Advisory Teacher or Educational Psychologist is an integral part of the assessment discussion and join the team on a regular basis. They have additional insight into the difficulties the child may experience in school.
After this we conclude an outcome which will be discussed in detail with the child and his/ her family.
Post diagnostic support
We are lucky in Cumbria as we have a variety of support groups in Cumbria.
We also have post diagnostic support by means of running training courses such as EarlyBird (for children less than five years old) and What Now? or EarlyBird Plus (school aged children). Children who are aged less than 11-years-old will have access to the Learning Disability Nurses (Cumbria Northumbria Tyne and Wear Trust - CNTW) for support if needed.
If the children are over 11-years-old and the child has a significant learning. difficulty then they will have access to the Learning Disability Team.
Throughout their childhood, autistic children can access support from MENCAP. There is also a new service for adults where adult autism assessments can be carried out.
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. People with autism see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you have autism, you have autism for life; autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be ‘cured’. Often people feel that having autism is a fundamental aspect of their identity.
How to be referred for assessment
If you are concerned that your child may have autism, please approach your GP for referral to a Community Paediatrician. Across Cumbria we have a very experienced team of Community Paediatricians that can explain the assessment process.
What happens after the referral?
The paediatric consultant will look at the referral in detail. If the paediatrician feels that your child would benefit from an assessment, you will be sent an age-specific questionnaire. This should be completed by you with as much detail as possible and brought to your first appointment so that the paediatrician can build up a picture of your child’s strengths and needs.
What happens at the appointment?
Your appointment with the paediatrician will last for approximately one hour, during which time you will be asked all about your child’s birth history and developmental progress. The paediatrician will examine your child and observe them whilst they play. The paediatrician will also try and engage and interact with your child. At the end of the appointment, the paediatrician will discuss their thoughts with you. If there is a possibility that your child may be on the autistic spectrum, the paediatrician will ask for a school report (if appropriate for your child’s age) which will describe how your child is learning and interacting socially with their peers. Sometimes the paediatrician will request assessments and reports from other therapists, such as speech and language therapy. If it is appropriate to do so your child may be referred for full assessment by the multi-agency assessment team.
What happens after the assessment?
After the assessment you will receive a brief report explaining the outcome of the assessment and you will be given the opportunity to discuss the findings. Regardless of the outcome, the paediatrician will discuss with you individualised support for you and your child according to their needs.
Workington Community Hospital,
Carlisle and Eden
Springboard Child Development Centre,
Alfred Barrow Health Centre,