Here in the United States, approximately one in every 59 children is born with autism. This is a statistic that climbs higher every year as autism awareness grows and doctors become increasingly capable of recognizing signs of autism.
However, because early intervention plays such a key role in autism recovery, it’s important for parents to learn the signs of autism as well.
Pediatricians may only see a child once every few months to once a year for well-child check-ups.
Without parents pointing out their own observations about their children, doctors may not have enough information to refer parents to a specialist until later in life.
This leads to many children with autism not getting diagnosed until after they’ve started struggling in school. As a result, they miss out on the benefits of early intervention.
Often, as parents, we know when things are not right with our child, even if we’re not sure exactly what the problem is or how to describe it.
Top 10 Signs of Autism
Sign 1: Limited Language Skills
One of the first signs parents of children with autism notice is a delay in language skills. About a third of children with autism have what’s called “nonverbal” autism, where they don’t develop verbal language skills at all.
Parents of nonverbal children may notice that their babies aren’t babbling by 6 months of age, or that babies who were once babbling begin losing that skill as they get older.
Even kids who have some verbal language skills often have notable signs that their verbal language is different.
One of those signs is called “echolalia,” which is where kids repeat someone else’s words. Very young children repeat words and sounds to help them learn them.
But if children continue to repeat everything you say or everything on the television as they get older, it can be a sign that something is not quite right with their language development.
Sign 2: Limited/No Eye Contact
People make eye contact to connect and communicate with one another, but children on the spectrum may not understand this use of eye contact.
You may notice that they look at you using their peripheral vision more often than looking at you straight on.
When you demand eye contact, they may actively refuse, they may look slightly above or below your eyes, or they may seem to “look through you.”
Of course, this is another area where you’ll want to keep in mind what’s normal for your child’s age.
Children under nine months of age don’t typically make eye contact because they haven’t yet learned the importance of that skill, and in early years eye contact tends to be quite brief.
But if this continues or you don’t see it getting better, it may be a symptom of autism.
Sign 3: Repetitive Behaviors
Children with autism often repeat behaviors to comfort themselves or calm themselves down. You may notice your child flapping their hands, rocking their bodies, spinning in circles, or doing other repetitive motions.
Often, for children with autism, these repetitive behaviors get worse when they are tired or feeling overwhelmed.
When you think about your child’s repetitive behaviors, think about gestures that they make that aren’t communicative in any way.
Sign 4: Unimaginative Play
Kids on the autism spectrum have a hard time with imaginative play.
When they’re very little, you may notice this when they line all their toys up in a straight row or keep them sorted by color instead of making a mess with them.
As they get older, you may notice that they have a hard time using toys in non-traditional ways.
For example, other kids might pretend a banana is a cell phone, but to a kid with autism, a banana is always a banana.
They may even become frustrated or upset if you pretend otherwise.
Sign 5: Resists Signs of Affection
For a lot of typically-developing children, being cuddled, hugged, or kissed is a clear sign of love from a parent. To a child on the autism spectrum, these same signs of autism can be overwhelming to them.
You may notice they stiffen when you go in for a hug or get frustrated when you plaster them with kissed.
People may label them as “standoffish” or you may think of them as “not a cuddler.”
Of course, all children will resist affection sometimes, when they’re playing and super engaged.
But if your child consistently doesn’t want to be touched or held, it may be a sign that something else is going on.
Sign 6: Rigid Adherence to Schedule
All children do well with routines, but for children on the autism spectrum, changing a routine can completely ruin their day.
They thrive on the predictability and control that their schedules and routines give them.
So while another child might be thrilled to be pulled out of school for a day to hang out with their parents, a child on the spectrum may become upset because they’re supposed to be in school.
They may show signs of anxiety or frustration when routines change.
Sign 7: Difficulty Understanding Non-Verbal Language
There are many components to understanding language.
On the one hand, there are the ways children use language with us. On the other hand, there are ways that children interpret the language we use with them.
Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty understanding non-verbal language. This may include a person’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
Sarcasm often goes over these children’s heads: they may be able to literally interpret what is said, but miss the big picture because they don’t notice how it’s said.
Sign 8: Sensory Issues
Sensory issues may be hard to notice because you never know exactly what’s going on inside your child’s mind.
However, you can start to suspect sensory issues if your child covers their ears when it gets loud, if they close their eyes when it’s bright out, or if they seemed overwhelmed in crowded spaces like malls or family gatherings.
Perhaps they listen well at home but struggle in public. Or maybe you notice that you’re raising a particularly “fussy” eater who has an issue with certain textures.
Though these symptoms don’t guarantee that your child is having sensory issues, they are key indicators that they might be having sensory problems.
Sign 9: Focused Interests
Another important sign of autism is a child who has very focused interests. Children on the autism spectrum often become fixated on a certain interest.
They’ll do research on that subject, talk about it ad nauseam, and not seem to notice when other people aren’t interested in the same subject.
They may also become frustrated if you try to pull them away from their special interests.
Sign 10: Limited Gestures
With very young children, you may notice that children with autism don’t develop “gesturing” at the same pace as other children.
They may whine for a cookie, for example, but not point to the cookie jar, or they might reach for the cookie jar but never look at it.
With older children, you’ll often notice that they don’t use gestures to communicate while telling stories.
Even children who are verbal may communicate with their words, but their body language may be rigid or they may use repetitive motions instead of meaningful gestures while talking.
Keep in mind that many of these signs of autism are part of a child’s normal development. It becomes symptomatic only when it continues occurring after it’s no longer developmentally appropriate.
Additionally, many people not on the autism spectrum will have some of these symptoms. That’s why it’s important to consider how your child is developing as a whole.
If you suspect your child may have autism, you should bring your concerns up with your child’s pediatrician and ask for a referral to a specialist. They can help you determine whether your child has autism, different learning or development challenge, or something else.
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