Parents and caregivers are nearly always the first to identify when something is not “right” with a child’s development. Developmental delays can signify autism spectrum disorder (ASD), other developmental problems, or nothing at all. Here are some signs of autism to look for in the developing child.
Communication and Language Delays
Delays in or absence of communication is a hallmark of ASD. If your baby does not turn toward sounds, smile back at you by about 4 months, babble, coo, and start “jabbering” sounds when happy – but cry when unhappy – these may be signs of autism.
Older babies who do not use gestures (such as waving or pointing by about 12 months) or toddlers who speak few words and seem not to understand words may be exhibiting signs of autism. Autistic children may appear not to be able to hear someone who is speaking to them, or to be in their “own world,” unaware of others’ attempts at communication.
Some autistic children do not speak at all, and most have significant delays in language acquisition and use. Around age 2, for instance, normally developing children can 2 to 4 words together in short but meaningful noun + verb “sentences” such as “want juice” or “need nap.”
When babies and toddlers are developing normally, one can nearly see the wheels of their minds turning as they explore their worlds. If a baby is not searching for a hidden object by about age 12 months, or exploring objects in a variety of ways (banging, tasting, shaking), he or she may be exhibiting signs of autism.
Toddlers who are developing normally will start solving problems such as moving a chair to a counter to reach an object or stacking objects to make them easier to carry. Normally developing children begin to imitate behavior around age 15 months, such as brushing their hair or trying to use a telephone.
Social and Emotional Delays
Social and emotional delays are also signs of autism. Children who are not interested in “peek a boo” or other social games, or who seem to have no interest in others may have signs of autism. Imaginative games really blossom in the normally developing child around age 3; children use action figures or dolls to enact elaborate stories. While it is not until at least age 3 that children will play cooperatively or collaboratively, a lack of interest in other children or adults at earlier ages can be a sign of autism.
Other signs of autism are a lack of expression of emotion. If a child does express joy, anger, sorrow, or other emotions, he or she may have signs of autism.
There are many major developmental milestones in children from birth through 5 years. Rolling over, crawling, standing alone, walking, running, climbing, jumping, and throwing are all examples of gross motor skills that, when slow to develop, may indicate autism. Of course all children develop differently, and guidelines are not set in stone, but if a child exhibits a significant delay in, for instance, walking, he or she may be exhibiting signs of autism.
Seek Help Early
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of signs of autism, but rather an overview. If you suspect any developmental delays in your growing child, consult your pediatrician for a developmental screening or assessment appointment.
Resources & References
For more information on warning signs of autism, read this page.
Visit the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Learn the Signs. Act Early page here.