Signs of Autism

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Many of us have heard of autism, perhaps in conversation with family members, through media outlets, or from our pediatricians. Though the term seems to be more prevalent today, many parents may not be aware of what autism is, including early signs of the disorder.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 88 children will be diagnosed with autism by age 8 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 30, 2012). Given the prevalence rate of the disorder, many efforts are underway to educate parents and the public about the disorder. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that leads to deficits in social communication and interactions, as well as to repetitive, stereotyped, or restricted patterns of behavior. The disorder varies in terms of severity and its unique characteristics. So, what does all of that mean? It means that, from early ages, your child should be making attempts to communicate verbally and non-verbally. He or she should be relating to and interacting with others and the world that surrounds him or her. It also means that your child should be flexible in his or her thoughts and behaviors. For example, your child should be able to adjust to slight changes in schedule or environment without significant tantrums.

Below are possible early indicators of autism:

• No babbling before 12 months

• No response to his/her name being called by 12 months

• No pointing to show interest in objects by 14 months

• No use of single words by 16 months

• No pretend play (e.g., pretending to bathe a doll) by 18 months

• No use of two-word phrases (e.g., “My ball” or “Want juice”) by 24 months

• Loss of acquired language or social skills

• Delays in language skills

• Repeats words and/or phrases over and over for no apparent reason (i.e., echolalia)

• Excessive interest in particular toys or items

• Poor eye contact

• Unusual body movements, such as posturing hands or fingers, hand flapping, body rocking, or spinning in circles

• Unusual sensory interests (e.g., odd reactions to smells, sounds, tastes, touch, or sights)

• Prefers to be alone

• Excessive lining up of toys or objects

• No smiling or back-and-forth play

There are also signs parents and providers can look for in order children, including the

• Difficulty making friends with peers

• Difficulty starting and continuing conversations with others

• Lack of or delays in make-believe and social play

• Unusual use of language, such as repetitive use of certain phrases

• Restricted patterns of interest that may seem unusual and excessive in intensity or focus

• Preoccupation with certain objects or topics

• Lack of flexibility to changes in specific routines or rituals

Parents, especially first-time parents, may be unaware of the ages their child should be obtaining certain skills. As such, it is important to speak with your pediatrician or a psychologist who specializes in early childhood so that developmental milestones (i.e., markers for first steps, first words, etc.) can be discussed. If you have concerns about your child’s development, reach out to others around you, especially your pediatrician or a child psychologist. Many pediatricians have parents complete early screeners for autism, which are questionnaires relating to the early signs of the disorder. If such screeners come back elevated, your pediatrician will likely refer you to a child psychologist who specializes in autism assessment and intervention. You can also directly contact a child psychologist, who will likely meet with you to discuss your concerns, as well as complete autism screeners. Information about autism is also available online from reputable sites, including Autism Speaks (, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (, and the Autism Society of America ( These sites often provide tool kits or resource guides for parents and professionals regarding the disorder. So if you are noticing possible early signs of autism in your child, do not be afraid to ask questions. Early identification is crucial to intervention. And if it turns out that all is fine, all that can be said is that you are a concerned parent. However, if it turns out that voicing your concerns leads to an early diagnosis of autism, you have just started your child on the best path for treatment and long-term outcomes.

~ Twyla L. Mancil, Ph. D.


Blog   Autism