Early Signs of Autism

young toddler
Use an autism behavior checklist.

Although most children with autism are preschoolers when they receive an official diagnosis or educational label, they often show signs of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) much earlier. Knowing the early signs of autism can help you get much-needed therapy for your child, which may lead to a much better outcome. According to Autism Speaks, an ASD awareness and advocacy group, and parent reports, certain symptoms may indicate an autism spectrum disorder in babies and toddlers.

Possible Signs of Autism in Babies

As you research this disorder, print this handy checklist of early autism symptoms to help you assess your child's development. If you need help downloading the printable, check out these helpful tips.

You are probably already watching your baby's development and rejoicing as he or she meets developmental milestones. However, you may also have concerns about your child's development. Even in babies under the age of 12 months, there are certain signs that may point to ASD.

No Babbling

Most babies make repetitive consonant-vowel combinations, such as "ba-ba-ba" or "da-da-da," by about eight months of age. This is an important precursor to developing speech, but for many children on the spectrum, this milestone is very delayed. If your baby has not begun babbling by 12 months of age, you should consult your pediatrician for a developmental screening.

Resists Being Held

If your baby is very active or fussy, he or she may go through periods where cuddling isn't at the top of the agenda. However, if your baby rarely likes to be held or does not enjoy your touch, he or she may have a type of sensory disorder. Often these sensory challenges go along with autism spectrum disorders.

Hard to Comfort

Similarly, sensory disorders can cause babies on the spectrum to be extremely fussy. If your infant cries constantly and you have ruled out other causes, such as acid reflux, he or she may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to stimuli in the environment. Sometimes, you may find that you can calm your baby, but you must use very specific or extreme measures to do so. For instance, some parents report that their child cries if taken from the infant swing, even for a moment.

Does Not Smile When You Smile

Typically developing babies are fascinated by the human face. When you smile at them, they immediately smile back. However, infants at risk for autism sometimes don't engage in this "social smile." If your baby is approaching the age of 12 months and does not smile back at you or appear happy to see you when you enter the room, this may be something to discuss with your pediatrician.

Does Not Engage in Back-and-Forth Interaction

Many babies like social games like peek-a-boo. They also enjoy cooing or babbling in a sort of "conversation" with an adult caregiver. If you notice that your baby doesn't engage in these activities, it can be a sign that your child is at risk for autism.

Difficult to Bond

Many parents of children on the spectrum report that bonding presents a challenge. Sometimes, babies with ASD do not enjoy cuddling or being held. They may also avoid eye contact and even seem to ignore caregivers. These traits can interfere with the parent-child bond, at least at first. It's important to remember, however, that all major autism research institutes, including the CDC, report that your parenting style cannot cause your child's autism.

Possible Signs of Autism in Toddlers and Preschoolers

As a child on the autism spectrum grows older, the signs of this disorder may become more apparent. Keep an eye out for some of these symptoms in toddlers and preschoolers.

Uses Your Hands to Do Things

Sometimes, one of the ways that children with autism spectrum disorders communicate and meet their needs is to use your hands like tools. These children may use your hand to open doors, get toys, or find a snack. This can be endearing, but it may also signal a problem with the child's development. If your child does this on a regular basis, consult your pediatrician.

No Talking by 16 Months

If your child does not speak any words by the age of 16 months, this may represent a speech delay. Although there are many reasons your child may have delayed speech, such as simply being a "late talker" or struggling with the motor tasks of forming words, it's always important to consult a professional about your concerns. Many children on the spectrum have a speech delay, and a speech therapist can help your child make significant progress.

Stilted or "Robotic" Speech

If your child is talking but he or she speaks in a monotone, this may be a problem with "prosody" or the natural inflection of words. This can be a challenge for many ASD kids, so it's important to check it out if the problem persists.

Limited Use of Speech

Many children on the spectrum are very verbal. They may have great vocabularies, but they may not be able to use their words to get what they need. For instance, they may be able to label every body part or every vehicle they see, but they can't seem to ask for a snack or request that you pick them up.

Non-Traditional Play

Toddlers on the autism spectrum often play with parts of toys, such as the wheels of a toy car or the door of a toy house. They may play with baby toys that are developmentally too young for them, or they may become fixated on household objects without understanding or being interested in the purpose of those objects. For example, a toddler with autism may love potholders but not have any interest their practical use. Additionally, typically developing toddlers and preschoolers are beginning to engage in pretend play, but children with ASD may show not interest in this activity.

Does Not Show Things

Another early symptom of autism is a lack of showing. Children on the spectrum often struggle with Theory of Mind, which is the idea that different people have different perspectives. They may feel no need to show you're a favorite toy or a new skill, since they don't see your perspective as different from theirs. If your child never shows you things, consult your pediatrician about your concerns.

Engages in Repetitive Movements

Moving in a repetitive way, often called "stimming," is a classic sign of an autism spectrum disorder, but this doesn't mean that every child who moves this way has autism. Repetitive movements might include rocking back and forth, flapping the hands, shaking the head, bouncing on the toes, shifting weight from foot to foot, and many others. If your child spends considerable time performing these repetitive movements, talk to a doctor or therapist.

Resists Changes in Routines

Most children seem to thrive on consistency, but if your child has a melt down or is unable to function when the routine changes, this could indicate a problem. Children on the spectrum often rely heavily on established routines. They find these routines calming and reassuring, and when they are altered, this can be a source of great stress. If you notice that your child experiences significant distress when routines change, this may be a cause for concern.

Other Early Signs of Autism

Whether your child is a baby or a toddler, there are a few other signs that may indicate a possible autism spectrum disorder. If you are concerned about any of the following signs, you should consult your pediatrician.

Limited Eye Contact

For many children on the spectrum, meeting another person's eyes may be challenging. If you notice that your baby or toddler resists eye contact on a regular basis, you should discuss your concerns with a doctor or therapist.

No Pointing or Gestures

Along with not showing toys or skills to other people, many children with autism don't point to objects or use gestures to communicate. They also may not follow a pointing finger to look at something. If you notice that your child never uses gestures and does not seem to understand any of the gestures you use, this may indicate a developmental problem like ASD.

Motor Delays

Taken alone, motor delays are not a sign of autism. However, it's common for children on the spectrum to struggle with coordination, balance, and meeting motor milestones. Regardless of whether this indicates autism, you should talk to your doctor to get your child the therapy he or she needs to catch up.

Does Not Turn to Name

Many parents report that their ASD children did not turn to look when their names were called. If you are constantly trying to get your child's attention and have to make loud noises or do extreme behaviors to get the child to look at you, you should talk to your doctor right away.

Loss of Skills

Any loss of milestones, whether they are motor, language, or social, is a cause for concern. If your child seems to forget how to speak or walk, for instance, contact your doctor immediately.

Extreme Over- or Under-Sensitivity

Many children dislike certain foods or clothing items, but if your child has an extreme behavioral reaction to tags in T-shirts or food textures, he or she may have a sensory integration disorder. Other red flags include a very high tolerance for pain or cold, a dislike of being messy, a dramatic avoidance of certain sounds, and any other extreme reaction to ordinary stimuli.

If You Suspect Autism

infant not responding

Especially if you're a first-time parent, it's natural to have concerns about your child's development. However, you should trust your parental instincts and consult a doctor about any developmental concerns you may have. Early intervention is an essential part of ensuring your child's future success, and it's always better to err on the side of caution.

If you're concerned about your child's development, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don't wait to follow up on your concerns. The earlier you get help for your child, the better his or her chances of success will be.
  • Be prepared for mixed reactions from other people. While some people will support your decision to pursue your concerns, others, possibly even your spouse or parents, may actively argue with you about your worry. Don't let this stop you from talking to a doctor.
  • Your school district is another great resource if you're concerned about your child's development. Call a local school and ask for the number of the early intervention special education coordinator. This person will set up an appointment to assess your baby's development.

Contact Your Doctor

According to the CDC, about one third of parents of children on the spectrum saw signs of autism in their child before he or she was one year old. Additionally, by the time their child reached the age of two, more than 80% of parents recognized early signs of autism. Remember that any concern you have about your child's development is valid, and you should always contact your doctor to help you determine whether autism is a possibility.

Early Signs of Autism