As a parent, you worry about your children hitting certain milestones—and if they miss a few, you start to worry about things like signs of autism. Autism is a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.
With autism becoming more prevalent in our society, more research is being done that will allow parents to spot the signs ff autism early on. While some children won’t display any signs of being on the spectrum until they’re older, it is possible to see clues as early as infancy. Most children on the autism spectrum disorder don’t get a diagnosis until they’re four or older.
Early detection and treatment from a qualified autism specialist is the key to an autistic child living a normal life and forming healthy relationships with others. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that it’s possible to get a reliable diagnosis as early as age two. Here are the signs and symptoms of autism at every age group:
Babies Under 12 Months Old
- Doesn’t make eye contact or smile.
- Appears to look right through you.
- Shows no interest in faces.
- Shows no interest in typical baby games such as “Peek-a-boo.”
- Doesn’t always react to sounds even if his hearing seems fine.
- Doesn’t like being cuddled or touched.
- Doesn’t babble or show early signs of talking.
- Doesn’t use gestures or reach for you when he wants to be held.
Toddlers 12 to 24 Months Old
- Doesn’t use any single words by 16 months or phrases by 24 months (some babies talk later than others, so this symptom alone is not always cause for concern).
- Uses no gestures—doesn’t point, wave hello or goodbye or shake head yes or no.
- Doesn’t show interest by pointing—by 18 months, most toddlers will point at something they’re interested in, like a toy or an animal.
- Walks on her toes or doesn’t walk at all.
- Noticeable loss in verbal skills—she used to babble and try to talk to people, now she doesn.t
Children 2 Years and Older
- Doesn’t seem to understand what people are saying to him. May not respond to his name or be able to follow directions properly.
- Laughs, cries or screams at inappropriate times.
- Has a language delay. Struggles to express his needs or doesn’t talk at all.
- Watch for unusual speech patterns: speaking haltingly, flatly or with a flat tone.
- Uses single words or sentences or repeating a word or phrase over and over. Repeats questions instead of answering them.
- Exhibits repetitive actions such as flapping his arms or hands.
- Narrowly focuses on a single object, one thing about an object (like a single wheel on a toy car) or one topic at a time.
- Engages in limited imitation. Rarely or never mimics you and does not engage in pretend play.
- Seems to prefer playing alone and has little interest in other children.
- Does not share or take turns when he does play with other children.
- Displays rigid behavior. May be very attached to routines and have difficulty with transitions. A change in the usual way of doing things could throw him into despair or cause a temper tantrum.
- Very picky about what he will and won’t eat or follows strict rituals during snack and meal time.
- Autistic children can be very sensitive, and an autistic child may overreact to some kinds of pain and underreact to others. For example, she might cover her ears and scream at a loud noise but barely bat an eye when she skins her knee.
- Engages in self-injury, such as hitting herself or biting herself.
- Is overly sensitive to various kinds of stimulation: gets irritated by noise, resists being touched, is extremely sensitive to smells or refuses to eat foods with certain textures or colors. Prefers clothing made of a certain material (nothing scratchy) and free of tags.
- Has sleep issues. Many children on the autism spectrum have problems falling asleep and either wake up frequently or are very early risers, no matter how late they go to bed.
- May be fearful when it’s unnecessary or fearless when there are reasons to be afraid. For example, she might be terrified of a harmless object like a balloon but have no fear of heights.
- Exhibits behavior problems. May be resistant, uncooperative or overly active. May be impulsive, hyperactive or aggressive.
Obviously, one or even a few of these symptoms may not be a cause for concern. It can be hard to tell if a young child actually has autism because many children without it have some of the same behaviors—after all, what toddler isn’t picky about food at some point? The questions begin to arise when a child displays several of these symptoms consistently and from an early age.
Dr. Lawrence Tucker is a Newport Beach child psychiatrist and autism specialist who has worked extensively with children with autism. If you have been tracking your child’s signs and have some concerns, a consultation may help lead to (or rule out) a diagnosis.