Mother worried about autism
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If it isn’t autism, what could it be?

Many have been there. The news that your child could have autism, then a two-year wait for an assessment to be done, followed by a wait for the results and then finally finding that your child doesn’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism. When you know that something ‘isn’t right’ but you fail to get a diagnosis could it be something other than Autism? Listed below are some conditions with similar symptoms that could be mistaken for autism:

Attachment Disorder

From Counselling Directory: This is when a baby or young child is not able to form an attachment with a parent/carer. This could be because the child has been neglected, there has been a period of absence from the parent/carer (e.g. hospital admission) or because the parent/carer or child is unable to emotionally connect this could be because of mental health issues such as depression. The signs of Attachment Disorder are very similar to those of Autism:

  • Avoids eye contact
  • Doesn’t smile
  • Doesn’t reach out to be picked up
  • Rejects your efforts to calm, soothe, and connect
  • Doesn’t seem to notice or care when you leave them alone
  • Cries inconsolably
  • Doesn’t coo or make sounds
  • Doesn’t follow you with his or her eyes
  • Isn’t interested in playing interactive games or playing with toys
  • Spend a lot of time rocking or comforting themselves

Hearing Impairment

If your child is having trouble communicating, understanding instructions and is difficult to distract, it could be that they have a hearing impairment. This is something that should be investigated by your GP/Paediatrician as a matter of course, but if not then it would be a good idea to request that your child has a hearing test.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

From the NHS: This condition is normally noticed at an early age with children usually being diagnosed between the ages of 6–12. ADHD is a collection of symptoms which fall into one of two categories:

Inattentiveness – the main signs of inattentiveness are:

  • Having a short attention span and being easily distracted
  • Making careless mistakes – for example, in schoolwork
  • Appearing forgetful or losing things
  • Being unable to stick at tasks that are tedious or time-consuming
  • Appearing to be unable to listen to or carry out instructions
  • Constantly changing activity or task
  • Having difficulty organising tasks
  • Hyperactivity and impulsiveness
  • Being unable to sit still, especially in calm or quiet surroundings
  • Constantly fidgeting
  • Being unable to concentrate on tasks
  • Excessive physical movement
  • Excessive talking
  • Being unable to wait their turn
  • Acting without thinking
  • Interrupting conversations
  • Little or no sense of danger

Developmental Language Disorders

From MedlinePlus – this can be one or both of the following:

  • Expressive Language Disorder – This is when children have difficulty getting their meaning or message across to others. The symptoms of this are:
    • A hard time understanding what other people have said
    • Problems following directions that are spoken to them
    • Problems organising their thoughts
  • Receptive Language Disorder – This is when children have difficulty understanding communication from others. The symptoms of this are:
    • Have a hard time putting words together into sentences, or their sentences may be simple and short and the word order may be off
    • Finding it difficult to use the right words when talking, and often use placeholder words such as “um”
    • Have a vocabulary that is below the level of other children the same age
    • Leave words out of sentences when talking
    • Use certain phrases over and over again, and repeat (echo) parts or all of questions
    • Use tenses (past, present, future) improperly

Selective Mutism

From the NHS: This condition affects roughly 1 in 140 young children and is more common in girls and children learning a second language. The condition is anxiety-driven and usually manifests itself when children are around people who they are not familiar with. It is not that they choose not to speak, but freeze and are incapable of speaking. The symptoms include being:

  • Nervous, uneasy or socially awkward
  • Rude, disinterested or sulky
  • Clingy
  • Shy and withdrawn
  • Stiff, tense or poorly co-ordinated 
  • Stubborn or aggressive, having temper tantrums when they get home from school, or getting angry when questioned by parents 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

From the NHS: This is a common mental health condition that causes people to have obsessive thoughts (an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust, or unease), and compulsive behaviours (a repetitive behaviour or mental act that you feel you need to carry out to try to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought).

People with the condition find themselves in a cycle of obsession, anxiety, compulsion and then temporary relief, before the cycle starts again.