What are the early signs of autism spectrum disorder?

Experts have said that autism spectrum disorder can be diagnosed in kids as young as 14 months old.

For Emily, whose son Deacon was diagnosed at 16 months, this early detection was crucial.

“We already could see that he was showing a lot of differences from other kids in terms of development,” she says. “He was just different, and as new parents, it was hard for us to detect… we felt like he wasn’t hitting the milestones the books told us he should be, or what our friends had experienced with their kids.

“We thought maybe we were being overly worried and that we were just being overly anxious parents, but if we hadn’t observed certain behaviors… if we hadn’t gone to a professional, we probably wouldn’t have had such an early diagnosis and things might have been more difficult in the long run.”

While Deacon didn’t display all of the following symptoms, these include some of the signs that Emily caught. Parents can watch for these symptoms in a child’s first year or two:

  • No eye contact during infancy (or very little eye contact)
  • No smiling
  • No response when called by name
  • No babbling
  • No pointing to objects
  • No speech (or in limited amounts)
  • No expression of emotions
  • No attachment to parents
  • A tendency to like being alone
  • A tendency to fall into repetitious behaviors

Some of these may appear well before a child turns a year old, but these differences are most often magnified when in the presence of other kids and how they interact with their environment and other people. If a child doesn’t smile or express emotions by six months old, that could be a first sign.

At nine months old, if a child doesn’t make eye contact, if they don’t share sounds or noises, or if they don’t smile with their parents, that could also be a sign of autism spectrum disorder.

By a year old, if the child doesn’t reach for toys, point at items, wave, babble or respond to their name, those could also point to autism spectrum disorder.

All this said, because children develop at a varying levels and degrees, it might be easy to miss some of the signs. For this reason, it’s important to observe – and if such signs as the one listed above are present, it’s a good idea to bring them up to the baby’s doctor at regular appointments.

In toddlers, these signs can become more apparent. Development differences, symptoms and signs will be easier to spot at this age.

Advise your child’s doctor if they seem to display the following:

  • They don’t like to show affection
  • They don’t point at things
  • They don’t speak (or speak very little)
  • They don’t seem to like seeing new faces
  • They don’t like to hug or cuddle
  • They don’t ask for help
  • They struggle when they need help
  • They don’t like starting conversations
  • They walk on their toes
  • They may not walk
  • They’re upset with certain sounds, smells or tastes
  • They display repetitive movements, like hand flapping

At the age of two or three, most kids can imitate the actions of others. While neurotypical kids likely have a healthy vocabulary and a desire to spend time with peers, a child with autism spectrum disorder might not be able to speak, or have limited ability to speak; they might be ill equipped to follow simple instructions; might play differently from other kids, like stacking or lining up toys instead of actively role playing with them; and have a limited number of words, sounds and gestures they use in verbal and non-verbal conversation.

They might also not like playing with others, or making friends, preferring to be alone. They might not know how to share how they’re feeling and don’t respond to communication that isn’t literal. They may seem as though they’re indifferent or lack compassion, because they have a hard time understanding how others are feeling and thinking. They might continually and repeatedly talk about the things they like.

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