What Are Autism Spectrum Disorders? Autism and ADHD Explained

Autism spectrum disorders affect around 700,000 people in the UK, meaning that over 2.8 million people have a family member on the autism spectrum. It’s a lifelong condition that affects how people interact with others, and it can be mild or serious depending on where the person sits on the spectrum.

For families with an autistic child, everyday life can be a real challenge. Autism affects how children see, hear and feel the world around them, and different people will need different support depending on how the condition affects them.

Because autism is a spectrum condition, every child experiences it differently – and this can make it challenging for those who care for them. Foster carers can sometimes find it difficult to offer the right kind of support to autistic children in their care due to their different needs.

But, small changes and a better understanding of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can make a big difference for foster carers supporting children with autism. That’s why we’ve put together this guide on ASD – giving foster carers the help and information they need to provide the right kind of support to an autistic child in their care.

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What is Autism and How Is It Defined?

Autism spectrum disorder is defined as a developmental condition that affects how people view the world around them. It’s a lifelong condition that children have from birth, and, because it’s not an illness or disease, it can’t be cured.

Autism is very common, with 1 in 100 people on the autistic spectrum. Signs and symptoms of the condition vary from person to person, which is why an early diagnosis is so important for children with ASD.

For many autistic children, the condition causes the most difficulty when they’re interacting with other people. Everyday interactions can be overwhelming, and they can struggle to build a rapport with those around them – even their closest friends and family.

Diagnosing ASD early is important to ensure children get the developmental support they need from a young age. However, because it’s not a physical condition, autism can be very difficult to spot, and many people often mistake the signs for behaviours that a child will grow out of.

Diagnosing autism is very complicated, requiring many tests to define where the child sits on the spectrum. Depending on the outcome, autism specialists will suggest strategies to help the child live life to the fullest.

What Are the Most Common Signs of ASD in Children?

While children exhibit ASD in many different ways, most autistic people share common behavioural traits. As a foster carer, understanding these traits could help you identify autistic behaviours in your child.

Here, we look at the five behavioural traits which children with autism may exhibit.

Social Communication

Autistic children can find it difficult to interpret both verbal and non-verbal communication, such as tone of voice, hand gestures, facial expressions, humour and emotions. They may also struggle to communicate verbally or non-verbally. For this reason, autism specialists often suggest sign language or visual symbols as a way of communicating clearly with very young autistic children.

Social Interaction

Given the communication problems touched on above, many autistic children struggle to interact with others. They can easily misinterpret another person’s feelings, meaning or intentions, and can appear insensitive. They may seek time alone and become ‘overloaded’ by social situations, or may talk at length about their own interests, dismissing customary forms of conversation and interaction.

Repetitive Behaviour and Routines

Because autistic children can find new situations stressful and overwhelming, they sometimes enjoy a set daily routine. This helps them avoid unpredictable scenarios in which they can become confused and anxious. Even simple things like requesting the exact same breakfast every morning could indicate autistic traits.

Highly-Focused Interests

Many autistic children develop highly-focused interests from a young age – it could be music, drawing, animals, or a particular colour. Often, the interest may be unusual, and this can cause problems at school or make it difficult for them to make friends. As with repetitive behaviour, children often become fixated on a particular subject because that’s what makes them the happiest and most comfortable.

Over or Under Sensitive

Autistic children may experience sensory sensitivity, in which they grow over or under-sensitive to taste, touch, sounds, light, colour or pain. The most common type of over-sensitivity is sound, in which quiet background noises become overwhelming and difficult to block out. Whatever they become sensitive too, it’s important to avoid this where possible as continued exposure can cause anxiety or, in some cases, physical pain.

Remember, children exhibit autistic traits in many different ways, so it’s important to make a note of any behaviour you find unconventional and seek a professional diagnosis if you are concerned.

Support Strategies for Foster Carers, Parents and Guardians

Caring for a child with autism can be challenging. There are, however, several recognised strategies that can help you provide the right help and support to your child – and we’ve touched on a couple of these below.

SPELL

SPELL is the National Autistic Society’s framework for responding positively to children on the autism spectrum. It stands for Structure, Positive approaches and expectations, Empathy, Low arousal, and Links. Basically, SPELL emphasises the need to change our approach to autism, so that we can provide the right support, help, communication and interaction to everyone on the autism spectrum – whether they have ADHD or Asperger syndrome.

TEACCH

Like SPELL, TEACCH is recognised by the National Autistic Society as one of the most positive strategies parents and carers can use when interacting with an autistic child. TEACCH stands for Teaching, Expanding, Appreciating, Collaborating, and Holistic, and it prioritises building understanding around the ‘culture of autism’ and the use of visual structures to aid development, learning and communication.

Social Stories

One of the newest coping strategies recommended by the National Autistic Society, Social Stories is a series of visual stories, created by Carol Gray, which aim to help autistic children understand social situations through visual learning. Since they were released in 1991, Social Stories have proved extremely helpful in developing greater social understanding for autistic people, and families are encouraged to create their own comic strips and storyboards to help children develop their social skills.

Helpful Resources

There are lots of resources available online offering advice on how to provide help and support to children with autism. Here, we list our recommended resources for foster families:

  • National Autistic Society – The UK’s primary autism charity, offering a broad range of information and advice, as well as a confidential helpline.
  • Resources for Autism – A registered charity which aims to provide practical services for children and young people with autism.
  • Child Autism UK – The UK’s largest dedicated charity for children with autism, offering a range of support guides and advice for children and their families.
  • NHS autism support groups hub – The NHS’s autism support hub, which can help families find support groups and services in their local area.

At Alliance Foster Care, we provide complete training and support to all our foster carers, so they can provide an effective and supportive home for children with autism.

For more information on how to foster with us, register your interest here or call us today on 00808 1680 180 .

Understanding the fostering placement matching process

Woman and child talking on and smiling on sofa

Placement social worker Melissa provides an introductory explanation of how foster placement matching works.

When you’re approved to become a foster parent, it’s an exciting time — you’re a step closer to changing not just your life but those of vulnerable children.

But to ensure your placement is as positive an experience as possible for you, your family — and each young person — the matching process is an important step.

What happens after my panel assessment?

After panel, an Agency Decision Maker (ADM) will use the minutes and recommendations from the panel meeting to make the final call on approval.

Once a positive decision has been made, we’ll check again their availability to start accepting placements.

For sibling groups particularly, the shortage of suitable homes means that ‘the sooner the better’ applies for new carers.

But the best placement is more important than the fastest one — and holidays, notice periods and other domestic changes can all delay a carer’s start date.

Once you’re ready to welcome a young person into your home, referrals from the local authority will be assessed for the most appropriate match.

You’ll also be introduced to your supervising social worker (SSW), who will complete a comprehensive and helpful induction with you.

Woman answers to door to a female social worker

And you’ll typically be given a ‘buddy’ — a more experienced carer who can offer help and advice during your introduction to fostering.

How are foster placement matches decided?

Successful matching will always depend on good assessments, high levels of information sharing and careful decision making.

Ultimately, the strongest potential matches will be based on whether the skills and experience of the carer meet the assessed developmental needs of the child.

Huge importance is placed on understanding each young person’s situation before matching, so information gathering about them is vital.

We find out as much possible — both from a positive and potentially negative point-of-view — to help inform the matching process, such as:

  • Pre-care history
  • Age
  • Ethnicity and cultural needs
  • Language barriers
  • Details of previous placements (number, duration, reasons for ending)
  • Developmental needs (health, education, emotional and behavioural)
  • Interests and hobbies
  • Special needs due to disability (physical or learning)
  • Any behaviours displayed, triggers and potential risks

All of these aspects will be discussed with the foster parent prior to a placement starting, so they’re fully aware and better prepared.

Some carers will have been exposed to the realities and rewards of helping young people, through close friends and relatives who foster.

Family Having a Water Fight

When the referrals team comes to assess a new foster parent, important factors considered during the fostering matching process will typically include:

  • Household dynamics (pets, other family members — particularly birth children or grandchildren)
  • Carer attributes and temperament
  • Transferrable skills
  • Capacity for empathy
  • Resilience
  • Potential for further development and training
  • Transport capabilities

Location and travel can play a big part in matching, as logistics are important — especially for school runs with younger children.

Often, it’s a requirement that a child continues at their current education provision and maintains any contact agreements they may have.

Although the team can specify a distance radius, carers can feed into this themselves, as their knowledge of local traffic and transport is more accurate.

Mother fastening child safety seat belt in the car

Any wishes and circumstances you express during the matching process will also be taken into account.

Provided you agree with the match once you’re satisfied you’ve been given the relevant information you need, your SSW will be informed of the decision.

An offer will be sent to the child’s local authority and their social worker will ultimately make the final decision over the matching process.

Do children have any say in placement matching?

Ideally, a young person will have the opportunity to visit their potential new home beforehand but some emergency placements mean this isn’t always achievable.

Most importantly, we’ll always conduct any fostering placement in line with the National Minimum Standards (NMS) for Fostering Services.

The ‘wishes and feelings’ section states that any fostered children must:

‘…know that their views, wishes and feelings are taken into account in all aspects of their care; are helped to understand why it may not be possible to act upon their wishes in all cases; and know how to obtain support and make a complaint.’

But regardless of NMS legislation, our priority is to ensure young people aren’t ignored or marginalised during fostering placement matching.

What happens next?

Throughout any placement, you’ll receive unrivalled support and your feedback will help shape the matching process for your next placement if required.

If your preferences as a foster parent change based on your experience and confidence gained, these will all be taken into account.

Hopefully this has made the fostering matching process clearer but if you’ve any questions, please contact our helpful team online or call 0808 1680 180.

So glad we kept sisters together | How fostering siblings works for us

To mark Fostering February, we asked Michael to tell his story of 12 months since fostering siblings.

Kids petting horse

To mark Fostering February, we asked Michael to tell his story of 12 months since fostering siblings.

It’s just over a year since we welcomed sisters M__ and E__ into our home — in the early hours of one winter morning.

Coming from an inner city environment, the girls were understandably unsure at first about our countryside location.

Today, they’re perfectly happy outdoors or playing with our ‘pack’ of four pugs — and are now living with us as a permanent placement.

Pugs running in snow

But we didn’t get to this point as a family overnight — once me and my wife Louise decided we wanted to foster, we had a lot of research to do.

Starting our fostering siblings journey

One of our oldest friends has been a foster parent for years, so we knew what a difference it could make to vulnerable children.

When we started looking into it, we spoke to a number of IFA’s — but it wasn’t until we got in touch with our current agency that it felt ‘right’.

They gave the impression of a ‘family’ environment — friendly contact, helpful information and a lovely initial visit.

It’s been a learning curve — we were apprehensive about our final panel meeting but needn’t have been.

Same with the first LAC meeting we went to — lots of new people, plenty to take in — but not scary at all once you’re there.

And we quickly revised our initial aim not to foster anyone older than our sons, R__ and M__, instead deciding to assess placements on their own merits.

We’re glad we did, as the girls are benefitting from having brothers — and vice versa — plus the age gaps aren’t that big anyway.

Kids being pushed in a swing

Although neither of the girls were in education when they came to us, we got to work enrolling them in local schools.

While waiting for their places to be confirmed, I was able to spend time with them — I’m self employed and mainly work from home.

And although time with the dogs and enjoying various craft activities was great, it was a relief when the girls were able to join their new schools.

Both sisters have flourished — especially considering how much school they’ve missed out on — and E__ is predicted top grades in every subject.

Making new memories – keeping siblings together

It’s not all work though, we’re a very ‘doing’ family — all of the kids have had a go at steering our canal boat during trips away.

Playing in the snow

 

And you’ll often find me up above the treetops — I’ve got a microlight aircraft and also fly powered parachutes.

Louise and I both qualified as pilots years ago in the US and we love getting up high and enjoying the views of Rutland Water and the surrounding countryside.

E__ has already been up for a flight — and we’re even working on persuading our social worker to strap in when she visits during warmer weather!

And now we’ve sorted out the girls’ passports, we can’t wait for our first family holiday abroad — Sri Lanka this Easter.

Giving more children a chance

This last year has been fantastic — the girls are as good as gold and we love them to bits — I would recommend fostering to anyone.

The training has been excellent, we’ve been given all the support we’ve needed and everyone we’ve met has been a huge help.

And our social worker Paula is great — nothing is ever too much trouble for her — but she’s also the one who told us the most heartbreaking thing.

Four kids walking in the snow and holding hands

At the ‘Skills to Foster’ course we attended, we found out not only how many kids need help — but also how many a month unfortunately can’t be placed.

Louise and I were lucky to have the childhoods we did — and we’ve done what we can to make sure the girls have the best we can give them.

But it’s important to share our experience — so other people will see how much the girls have enriched our family by coming to live with us.

And hopefully someone will be inspired to change a vulnerable young person’s life — and change their own at the same time.

There’s no better time than now, during Fostering February.

If you’d like to know more about how you could help brothers and sisters who need each other stay together, please contact us online or ring 0808 1680 180.

7 lessons I’ve learnt from introverted children

If you care for a quiet, shy or ‘less sociable’ young person, this knowledge gained working with foster parents who care for introverted children may help you support them.

Caring for introvert children

If you care for a quiet, shy or ‘less sociable’ young person, this knowledge gained working with foster parents who care for introverted children may help you support them.

Courtesy of NFA North West training manager Kath Hamblett.

 

1. Introverts aren’t aloof

Some children may exclude themselves simply because they’re frightened of forming an attachment.

If you’ve often been let down by adults, the relative sanctuary of your bedroom may feel more solid than promises made by ‘new’ people.

Carers can refer to their training — particularly the importance of sensitivity as detailed in the ‘Secure Base Model‘ to help children manage these feelings.

By tuning into what young people might be feeling, a foster parent can start to understand introvert behaviour and offer the right support.

2. Introverts aren’t boring

A young person might be reluctant to join in or try something new — that doesn’t mean they’re no fun.

They may have been punished or abused for ‘failures’ at tasks and activities in their past — so sticking to the familiar makes sense.

The empathy to see that a lack of participation doesn’t always mean a lack of ambition or ability is an important carer attribute.

And by being patient and encouraging, they can give a young person the best chance to explore how much they want to ‘join in’.

3. Introverts can reach out

Take opportunities to establish (and build on) trust whenever these are presented if possible.

If a child wants to play lego with you rather than go to bed, maybe some shared bonding over bricks would be more beneficial than a strict routine at that time.

By allowing such interaction, you can provide a safe space for a young person to play, explore and share with you.

And as the relationship develops and trust grows, it should become easier to introduce clearer defined routines.

4. Introverts aren’t robots

A perceived lack of emotion may not tell the whole story — some children simply haven’t known a nurturing environment to help them understand their feelings.

If a young person hasn’t learnt what an emotion means, they may not even know if they’re mad/sad/glad/scared — let alone how to express this.

Be there for them and leave no doubt that they’re a member of your family, to develop a sense of belonging.

As the young person becomes more comfortable with their environment, they may learn how to recognise and express emotions by seeing others do so.

5. Introverts aren’t broken

You don’t need to ‘fix’ an introverted young person by keeping them permanently occupied or frequently placing them in social situations.

Sometimes, quiet or alone time is hugely valuable — especially for children who need time to process a lot of unfamiliar information.

A new home, new family, new school — even new feelings — can be a lot to deal with — so be available but recognise the value of space.

If you can give this support, a young person can start to associate that solitude with reflection, rather than exclusion or punishment.

6. Introverts may have history

When involving an introvert in a group or family event, consider that you may need to manage expectations.

Just because a party or barbecue means a good time for most, such occasions could have different associations for a looked-after child.

Violenceneglect, abuse — be aware that something most people look forward to may be linked to a previous bad experience for a young person.

So they may appear more anxious than excited at the prospect of a get-together, particularly one with lots of people, alcohol or an unfamiliar location.

Address concerns by explaining what goes on at such occasions in your family — and maybe even dig out a photo from a previous similar event.

7. Introverts may need ‘guesswork’

An introverted child’s lack of visible confidence may go hand-in-hand with not understanding consequences.

When kids are told ‘don’t run with scissors’, ‘hold hands to cross the road’ and ‘take off coats indoors’ — they learn about cause and effect.

But without this understanding of reasons for actions, a young person may not understand why they’re being asked to do (or not do) something.

Using ‘guesses’ to prompt them to question themselves can encourage them to understand the causes and outcomes of certain behaviour.

Try phrases like: ‘I guess you wanted to stay in your room rather than eat with us because you’re feeling upset about XXXX’, to start the process.

So… one step at a time

So a child who isn’t the ‘life and soul’ doesn’t need to be forced to change, they need acceptance and availability.

Remember — ‘quiet’ is a subjective term and someone who seems withdrawn at first in your home may be dealing with much more than they’re used to.

Maybe a one-to-one game of cards will be all they can deal with initially — but give them opportunities to learn the value and fun of spending time with others.

With time and luck, the young person will become an important part of your family who can also spend time apart without being seen as rude or sullen.

 

Find out more about the Secure Base programme and other specialist training available for carers by calling 0800 044 3030 or if you prefer, contact us online.

To see when you can talk to some of our friendly staff in person about training and support, see our latest events near you.

Introduction to attachment and foster care | Joe Nee

 

Expert in attachment theory Joe Nee highlights some of the impact a child’s attachment experience can have on them and their foster families.

As children develop, from conception to adulthood, they need support from those responsible for protecting them during this journey.

When going through the various stages in this developmental process their experience of attachment plays a crucial role.

This continues throughout the young person’s development, from absolute dependence, to independence and autonomy as an adult.

And the different needs of children at each stage demand differing responses from those charged with their care.

Each develops at their own pace — from being unable to let their main carer out of their sight to the ‘terrible twos’, ‘sibling rivalry’ the ‘lazy teenager’ and so on.

Studying how a child attaches to their parents/carers helps us understand how this process is affected by the nature and quality of our early experiences.

This is particularly true of children who have experienced early trauma and/or neglect.

All children need to develop a secure emotional attachment to their parents or their primary/main carer at an early stage.

 

Stressed young mother sitting on her sofa whilst feeding her baby son. She has her head in her hand and is surrounded by mess

 

Young people may seem ‘unable’ to learn, or understand consequences, behaving in ways that seem to guarantee they won’t get what they want.

They may even feel responsible for their problems and those of their parents, believing themselves to be ‘bad’ or deserving of punishment.

The quality of the attachment relationship a child develops with their key caregiver is a good indicator of their ability to cope and adapt.

And as the child grows, this relationship means they continue to view this caregiver as a potential source of comfort in any stressful situations.

Unfortunately, this can continue to be the case even if the caregiver proves to be abusive, neglectful, fails to protect them, or their life seems to be in chaos.

For foster parents, this can clearly prove a challenge, as the child seeks comfort and approval from whichever caregiver to whom they have been attached.

 

The effects of attachment on foster parents

Attachment relationships are a biological inevitability, designed to ensure a child’s protection and survival.

But a child or young person’s ability to attach and form a bond with a caregiver often depends on the type of care they received from others earlier in their life.

It’s important that foster parents get appropriate support to promote healthy attachments for the children and young they care for in their family.

And where young people are removed from birth parents permanently, it’s vital that the appropriate matching and training takes place.

Foster parents looking after children who have disorganised or extremely anxious attachments can experience similar emotional upheaval.

Of course, fostering can be challenging at any time — but the stress involved in caring for some children can have a serious impact on the placement success.

In such situations, support from social and/or professional networks is typically a major factor in alleviating carer stress.

Particularly important is access to timely and effective support from social workers and other professionals.

Research has shown that the absence of this can exacerbate the strain on carers and their families.

 

Meeting a young person’s needs

Some younger children with a history of maltreatment can respond quickly to changes in their emotional environments, forming secure attachments to carers.

But research and experience tells us that this will not always be the case with certain children.

Some appear to resist support, continue to distrust adults and seem unable to seek care or comfort when distressed.

In these cases, if foster parents wait for a ‘signal’ or sign from a child to provide care, the young person’s needs may remain completely unmet.

We know that looked after children benefit greatly if they can develop secure attachments with their caregivers.

To enable this for those with attachment or trauma issues, foster parents can aim to engage with them at their emotional age (rather than chronological).

In order to ensure that young people with attachment issues are cared for most effectively during foster placements, several measures can help:

  • Capacity of prospective carers to recognise/tolerate difficult behaviour and remain sensitive/responsive to a child’s needs should be evaluated
  • Regular training and support to ensure carers can reflect on a child’s behaviour with reference to their needs rather than react immediately to their behaviour
  • Carer access to reflective space and non-judgmental listening to promote sensitive, responsive care and alleviate the strain on all concerned

 

Mother and teenage daughter having an argument

 

Any professionals, including foster parents, who are asked to care for or work with looked after children should have basic but specific training.

This should concern the impact of early attachment issues and trauma on those children.

And the support available should be proactive — not crisis driven or occurring only when stress levels are unacceptable.

 

Attachment and teenagers

A young person may appear to be settled, happy and thriving in a foster family environment.

But one of the triggers that can disrupt the situation for all concerned can be the onset of puberty.

The stresses and confusion for a young person during this time and their teenage years, can pose problems in terms of changing behaviour.

Another potential influential factor is young people’s vulnerability to harmful external influences.

A teen’s early experiences of mistrust, inappropriate attachment and confusion about relationships can make them an obvious target.

The potential threat of controlling relationships, sexual exploitation or gang associations increase for those with an inability to manage social relationships.

 

Learn more about attachment

Understanding the impact of attachment and how it can affect the fostering experience for young people and carers is important.

Find out more about the available training and support available by using the bibliography below, contacting NFA or see further resources on attachment from the Fostering Network.

 

About the author

Joe Nee is an independent psychology professional with extensive experience in the education and child protection sectors.

He has worked with local authorities, government departments, the police, prisons and voluntary organisations throughout the UK.

As a renowned authority on child protection, families, fostering and adoption, his expertise as a consultant is both insightful and invaluable.

 

Bibliography

  • Dozier M, Albus K and Bates B (2001) Attachment for infants in foster care: the role of caregiver state of mind, Child Development, 72, 1467-1477
  • Dozier M, Peloso E, Lewis E, Laurenceau J P and Levine S (2008) Effects of an attachment-based intervention on the cortisol production of infants and toddlers in foster care, Dev Psychopathology, 20, 845-859
  • Fonagy,P. and Target, M. (2002) Early Intervention and the Development of Self Regulation. Psychoanalytic Inquiry. V 22,Issue 3
  • Furnival, J. Practice with looked after children and young people IRISS Insights no.10. May 2010
  • Hughes, Dan (2006) Building the Bonds of Attachment
  • Holmes, J (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. Routledge
  • Hosking G and Walsh I (2005) Wave Report 2005: Violence and what to do about it, Croydon Wave Trust
  • Kochanska G, Barry RA, Stellern SA and O’Bleness JJ (2009) Early Attachment Organization Moderates the Parent Child Mutually Coercive Pathway to Children’s Antisocial Conduct, Child Development, 80, 1288-1300
  • Millward R, Kennedy E, Towlson K and Minnis H (2006) Reactive attachment disorder in looked-after children Emotional & Behavioural Difficulties, 11(4)
  • Steele M (2006) The ‘added value’ of attachment theory and research for clinical work in adoption and foster care, in J Kenrick (ed) Creating New Families Therapeutic approaches to fostering adoption and kinship care, London: Karnac Books
  • WilPerry B and Hambrick E (2008) The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, Reclaiming children and youth,17(3)
  • son K (2006) Can foster carers help children resolve their emotional and behavioural difficulties? Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 11(4), 495-511
  • Zeanah C (2001) Evaluation of a preventive intervention for maltreated infants and toddlers in foster care, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(2), 214-221