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Early Signs of Autism

Uncovering the Early Signs of Autism

Recognizing early signs of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and seeking early intervention can make a world of difference in the life of a child with autism. Here, we share what you need to know about spotting signs of autism early.

When do early signs appear?

Research now suggests that children can show signs of autism as early as 1 year old. However, timing varies, as Autumn W., an occupational therapy assistant who works with children with autism, explains: "There is early onset autism (before 2 years of age) and late onset (where a child meets most milestones on time and seems to be developing normally until a marked regression of skills)."

What are typical signs that a child has autism?

No child with autism is the same. There is a very large spectrum of behavior exhibited by children with autism, and there is no "typical" group of behaviors that all children with autism exhibit. As Jana T. shares: "All autistic children are unique in their own ways. There is no typical behavior of an autistic child."

What are the developmental "red flags" to watch for?

While there isn't a checklist of signs that will indicate your child certainly has autism, Autism Speaks does cite each of the following "red flags" as an indicator that a child is at risk for atypical development and should have an immediate evaluation:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months or thereafter.
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months or thereafter.
  • No babbling by 12 months.
  • No back-and-forth gestures — such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving — by 12 months.
  • No words by 16 months.
  • No two-word meaningful phrases (without imitating or repeating) by 24 months.
  • Any loss of speech or babbling or social skills at any age.

What are other possible signs?

In addition to the milestones noted above, there are many possible signs and symptoms of autism, which include social, communication, and behavioral differences.

As Autumn W. relays: "In early onset [autism], there will be a marked delay in several milestones, particularly in speech. The child may avoid eye contact and resist being held. The child may develop an irregular gait (toe walking, walking on insteps, or never relinquishing a 'high guard'). Autistic children often fixate on objects, exploring every aspect of the object. Most autistic children will self-stimulate (i.e., rocking back and forth, visual stimulation by waving their hand in front of their face, tapping, hitting themselves, and repetitive auditory stimulation). Oftentimes, they appear to be in their own world, oblivious to their environment."

Other signs readers highlight include echolalia (repeating sounds without understanding them); sensitivity to sounds, light, textures, touch, and smells; lack of empathy/understanding emotion; or movements like flapping arms, rocking, rubbing hands or fingers together, and head banging.

What are signs of late onset autism?

In addition to early onset signs, it's important to look for signs of regression from typical development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately one quarter of children with autism will seem to have normal development until about 18 months, after which they will:

  • Stop talking (if they had begun speaking words).
  • Stop waving goodbye.
  • Stop turning the head when the name is called.
  • Withdraw into a shell and seem more distant and less interested in surroundings.

These changes may occur gradually or suddenly.

For a detailed list of possible signs of ASDs, refer to this overview of autism spectrum disorders by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Finally, trust your gut, advises Stacy H.: "Go with your gut! Push for the evaluations! Who knows — maybe you are just overthinking things and worrying too much, but then again, maybe you are dead-on. That evaluation could make a world of difference in early intervention and really change your child's life!"

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Join The Conversation
Jennifer57836 Jennifer57836 1 year

What I don't like about this article is that it does not address Aspergers - Now that they have removed Aspergers and changed it to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Asperger symptoms are completely different, especially is your child is High Functioning Aspergers. They should have kept Aspergers as a different diagnosis. This article does not give any symptoms that my child had.

FrancesLeClere FrancesLeClere 1 year

My dad knew something was wrong with my brother at only two months old. He had extreme separation anxiety at that age and would have a meltdown if a light bulb burned out or something was different. In addition, resisted being held and never smiled at anyone.

BobbyR60745 BobbyR60745 1 year

My eldest was diagnosed at almost 7years old but I'd always noticed 'something' was different, even before 1year. He walked at 16 months which was apparently 'normal' and was toilet trained at 4. But besides that, he met milestones on time if not before. He was a dream baby really (besides reflux but we learnt to deal with it). Looking back I think sticking to a strict routine helped us immensely but yup I think a mum knows something's up veery early

LisaLong1385849661 LisaLong1385849661 2 years
Hello, I have 3 children on the Autism Spectrum. My 23 yo daughter has a 8 mth old baby boy that was born with a heart defect. Lately we have noticed that he rocks back and forth a lot, flicks his wrist back and forth and often will make eye contact but quickly looks away. He is late reaching all of his milestones but I am not sure if it is due to weakness from his heart defects or ASD, he is not yes sitting up, crawling ect. I am very worried and maybe a bit too much due to my experience with my children ... Is this signs of ASD or is it due to his heart (that is getting better and better on his own)?
JoniMartin JoniMartin 4 years
I am one of those parents that truly believes the shots contribute the Autism in my son. My son was born a very health baby and was developing great and doing all the milestone. We he received his six months shot, everything went down hill from there. I have a six month picture of him doing great right before his shots hurt him. He started showing signs after his six months shots were given. Plus his eyes and ears started giving him trouble. Would not talk and everything had to be circle motion and so much more. At the age of 1, I knew he had something and had all the signs of Autism. After fighting with doctors he was finally diagnosed at the age of 2 1/2 years old and just started walking too. I am a very proud mom for he has done so well and love seeing him learn. Plus so blessed to have 2 girls to help him during his journey in this life. I am a proud parent of 3 beautiful children!!!! God truly have blessed me!
DawnHunterRisas DawnHunterRisas 4 years
I wish I would have seen this about 17 years ago. My now 18 year old, was diagnosed in 2nd grade with Aspergers. I knew there was something different, but I couldn't put my finger on it. He was reading well beyond his age level, and even before school, could tell you about things that could amaze you! He would also ask deep questions, that were beyond the scope of a 3 year old. Through out his life, he has realized he is different, and was bullied horribly. He felt he was broken, and at times, I believe suicidal. The meds the psychiatrist wanted to put him on (Haldol) I was against, because of my brother who worked in a psych ward. He said Haldol patients were just zoned out. I didn't want that for my son, but I wish there were other ways I could have helped him.
StacyHanzely StacyHanzely 4 years
I have twins both with PDD Autism and Down Syndrome. One boy was diagnosed at 22 months, the other at 26 months. The flags for the boys were excessive stimming and swinging and twirling objects and humming constantly. They will be 6 next month and they are still non-verbal but signing with a sign language vocabulary of 400+ signs and they are reading and working on the computer like champs.. they are amazing!!!
KimYoblonski KimYoblonski 4 years
I have a 3yo son that has ALWAYS been a difficult child. Even as an infant, he seemed hypersensitive.As he has gotten older, his tantrums have increased. Tantrums and screaming fits are a daily occurance. He can be a very loving and sweet little boy, but those times seem to be the exception, rather than the norm. Recently I took him in for a hearing test because his enunciation is greatly lacking. His hearing was fine, he's just a lazy talker (my description). I have 6 kids ranging in age from 21 down to 2. My son is number 5. All of siblings are very functioning, including his younger sister. He has a desire to go to school, but isn't showing much of an interest in even trying to memorize his letters, colors, shapes, etc. Though he does do well with tracing letters, then freehand writing them. I guess I have always wondered if there was an issue, but have no idea what process I should use to make such a determination. Do any of these characteristics sound familiar to any of you?
AtiraCasburn AtiraCasburn 4 years
My son is almost 6 and is tentatively being diagnosed as PDD (an ASD). We are still struggling with a diagnoses since he "doesn't fit the mold" of a typical autistic kid.
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