Spotting the early signs of autism in children can be tricky because not every child will follow the same trajectory or display similar symptoms. Some parents might notice symptoms in their baby before their first birthday, but it’s more common for signs to become obvious between the ages of 2 and 3 years.

While there is no specific medical test that can diagnose autism, there are early signs to look for in children. No child will have all these characteristics, but some common challenges include the following.

Signs of autism to look for in babies

  • Doesn’t smile when you smile at them
  • Doesn’t enjoy cuddling or being held
  • Doesn’t point at objects to show interest
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Doesn’t seem to listen
  • Does not show facial expressions like happy, sad, angry and surprised by 9 months of age
  • Doesn’t respond to their name by 12 months
  • Gets very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound
  • Uses few or no gestures by 12 months of age (for example, does not wave goodbye)

Signs of autism to look for in toddlers and preschoolers

In addition to the above early signs in babies, you might also notice the following early symptoms of autism in your toddler or preschooler:

  • Doesn’t engage in pretend play by 18 months
  • Prefers to play alone and doesn’t seem to understand feelings in other people
  • Doesn’t speak as much as other kids or speaks with an unusual rhythm
  • Gives unrelated answers to questions
  • Appears to ignore your requests
  • Repeats the same words or phrases constantly
  • Gets upset in response to minor changes in routine or the order of toys/objects
  • Intentionally — and repeatedly — inflicts harm on themselves
  • Is focused on parts of objects (for example, wheels)
  • Displays repetitive movements, such as flapping hands, rocking or spinning in a circle
  • Displays unusual sensitivity to sounds, smells or touch
  • Has unusual food preferences
  • Says no single words by 15 months or 2-word phrases by 24 months

If you think your child falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, check in with their pediatrician. Autism is diagnosed through watching your child’s behavior. Your pediatrician can identify signs that may mean your child has autism and refer you to a provider who specializes in autism. You can also contact your local early intervention program (for children up to age 3 years) or Child Find program (for ages 3 and up) for a free evaluation through your local school system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Learn the Signs Act Early campaign is also a great resource.

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Allison Ratto Allison Ratto, PhD, is a psychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National. She specializes in assessment and treatment of ASD and related developmental disorders, particularly in young children and intellectually delayed individuals.

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