Early signs of autism in children and when they usually start showing symptoms explained

By Staff 7 Min Read

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. Here are some of the early signs to look out for

Autism spectrum disorder is caused by differences in the brain and can lead to issues with social communication and interaction.

Individuals with ASD may also exhibit restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests. Symptoms of ASD in children can emerge as early as 12 to 18 months – sometimes even sooner. Common early signs include difficulties with eye contact, lack of response to their name, problems following another person’s gaze or pointed finger to an object.

Other indicators include poor skills in pretend play and imitation, and issues with nonverbal communication. Typically, children with ASD aren’t diagnosed until they are three or older, however, healthcare professionals can sometimes identify developmental issues earlier than that. Early identification and intervention can improve outcomes.

People with ASD have behaviours or interests that can seem unusual, reports Bristol Live. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, examples of restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests related to ASD can include:

  • Lines up toys or other objects and gets upset when the order is changed.
  • Repeats words or phrases over and over (called echolalia).
  • Plays with toys the same way every time.
  • Is focused on parts of objects (for example, wheels).
  • Gets upset by minor changes.
  • Has obsessive interests.
  • Must follow certain routines.
  • Flaps hands, rocks body, or spins self in circles.
  • Has unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel.

By 12 months of age

According to HealthyChildren.org, most children can immediately look in the direction of an object a parent is pointing at. They will then look back at the parent and mimic the parent’s expression, usually a smile. Children on the autism spectrum may appear to ignore the parent. This can cause parents to worry about their child’s hearing.

By nine months of age, they may not display facial expressions such as happiness, sadness, anger, or surprise, or engage in simple interactive games like pat-a-cake.

By 15 months of age

Most children can point to out-of-reach objects that they want. A child on the autism spectrum may instead take a parent’s hand and lead the parent to the object without making much, if any, eye contact. Sometimes the child may even place the parent’s hand onto the object itself.

By 18 months of age

Most children point at objects they find interesting. Children will look back and forth between an object and a parent to make sure the parent is tuned in to what they are looking at. Children on the autism disorder spectrum will often point to an object because they want a parent to get it for them, not because they want the parent to enjoy looking at the object with them.

By 24 months of age

Most children this age often enjoy watching each other play and may even imitate one another. Children on the autism disorder spectrum will often not notice when others are hurt or upset by 24 months of age. They may notice other children and join them in play by 36 months of age.

They also may not pretend to be something else, like a teacher or superhero, during play by 48 months of age. By 60 months of age, they may not sing, dance, or act for you. It is important to remember autism is a spectrum. This means everybody with autism is different.

Some autistic people need little or no support. Others may need help from a parent or carer every day. Signs of autism might be noticed when you’re very young, or not until you’re older.

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