What Does Autism in the Young Child Look Like?

Observation, not Medical Testing

Because there is no medical test for autism, diagnosis is made based on observation of behavior. Although developmental screening and evaluation relies on tests, the responses to the questions on those tests are behavior-related. It may seem, then, that autism is a subjective diagnosis, but it is not. While two children with the same diagnosis may not share the same symptoms, the broader categories of impaired communication and social functioning are hallmarks of autism.

Parents may realize that their child is not developing normally or seems to be “different” without being able to put their finger on a specific delay or deficit. It is important, then, for parents to understand how an autistic child may act, speak, talk, move, and interact. The sooner these observations are made, the sooner a child can be screened and evaluated, diagnosed and treated, so early observation of behaviors is critical.

Hallmark Behaviors

Hallmarks of autism are deficits in social interaction, deficits in communication, and repetitive behaviors. The autistic child may appear not to know how to play and not engage in the give-and-take of normal social interaction or be able to play pretend games. An autistic child may not, for instance, pretend to feed a doll or role-play with action figures or other toys.

Autistic children may speak very little, or not at all, or fail to meet developmental guidelines for language acquisition and use. The child may appear to be in his “own world” or appear not to be listening when spoken to. Babies who are not responding to their own names by around age 1 may be exhibiting a symptom of autism.

Repetitive behaviors like touching objects or repetitive gestures may be present in the autistic child. Autistic children may have limited interests and an inability to determine when their interest is not shared by others. For instance, an autistic child may know a great deal about airplanes but very little else, and talk continuously about airplanes to the exclusion of other topics even when his audience is clearly not interested.

Observe and Learn

For parents, reading about these behaviors is certainly useful since it can help parents to understand that their child’s behavior may have an underlying, treatable cause and that their child is not the only one affected by these behaviors. But actually seeing what these behaviors look like in diagnosed children can present a learning opportunity for parents.

Patricia Towle, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist with the Westchester Institute for Human Development in Valhalla, New York, has produced a 90-minute DVD called “Autism Spectrum Disorder in Young Children: A Visual Guide/ Volume I: An Overview, Learning to Observe Across the Three Symptom Domains.” The DVD, as the name suggests, lets parents see what the behaviors associated with autism look like in young children. This visual guide presents a unique opportunity for parents to observe behaviors they may have observed in their own child. Seeing these behaviors “in action” may help parents to better understand their own child’s behaviors and help parents become better advocates for their child’s care.

The DVD is available for order here.

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