Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a disorder that affects the typical behavioural, social and communicational development of a child. The range of behaviour and developmental challenges seen in autistic people are wide and varied and it affects individuals so differently which is why we refer to it as a spectrum. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) could share some or all of the traits of social, behavioural and sensory challenges and in varying degrees. The degree to which these traits interfere with day to day functioning differs from one individual to another. 

Do all children show the same symptoms?

Early signs of autism usually appear in the first 1-2 years of life and a diagnosis can be made by an experienced health professional even as early as 2 years, although many are formally diagnosed much later.  Some children have many early signs of autism, whereas others may show less obvious symptoms. Given the ways in which autism can affect children, it is difficult to put down a list of symptoms that definitively indicate Autism. Many parents of children with autism report that although a diagnosis might have come at a later point in time, they began to see signs and symptoms at a much earlier stage but only didn’t know what to do about them. Most aren’t aware of symptoms that need immediate intervention and wonder if it could be a phase their child will outgrow. Many children with autism, begin to show developmental differences when they are just babies, especially in areas of communication, behaviour and social skills and not necessarily physical milestones. This can sometimes make it even more difficult to notice these delays until they become more obvious.   Although, signs and symptoms extremely vary, the following signs, especially when they occur together warrant attention. 

Recognising Early Signs Of Autism

Social Skills

  • Limited or absence of eye contact
  • Limited or no response to a parent’s interaction, smile or any facial expression
  • Not looking at objects/sights being pointed to
  • Absence of pointing to objects or events of interest to a parent or caregiver
  • Less likely to bring objects of interest to show to a parent or caregiver
  • Difficulty understanding the emotions or feelings of others by looking at their facial expressions
  • Difficulty in making friends

Establishing eye contact is one of the first signs of social and communication skills that babies show and this generally happens when babies are about 6-8 weeks old. Children on the spectrum show little or no eye contact with parents or caregivers, even when the parent is interacting with them. As babies grow older, they tend to point at objects that capture their interest and will look at objects being shown to them, like when a parent points to a bus or animal outside. The absence of pointing and shared attention is often missing in children with autism. Your child may not show any interest in a game of peek-a-boo or playing round and round the garden on their hands.  

Communication Difficulties

  • Absence of pointing to objects or events of interest to a parent or caregiver
  • Doesn’t point to things to indicate needs
  • Says no single words by 15 months of age or 2-word phrases by 2 years
  • Often repeats what others are saying instead of having a meaningful conversation (Known as echolalia)
  • Doesn’t follow objects visually or follow your gesture when you point things out
  • Poor response to name 
  • Might show regression of language or other social milestones between 18 months and -2 years, which is losing skills that the child had already developed
  • Limited or absence of pretend play which typically starts around 14-18 months of age
  • Shows little interest in communicating. 

Most babies begin to understand and respond to their name by 6-9 months. They might turn their head to look at you when you call their name or vocalise and show a response in some way, all of which may be absent in children on the spectrum. This poor response to name often makes parents wonder if the child has difficulty with their hearing. When it comes to difficulties in communication, it is important to see how this differs from a child who has speech delays and has trouble communicating. A child with speech delays might use gestures, point out or show different facial expressions to communicate. A child on the spectrum does not make any attempt to indicate their needs or communicate, even though they are able to speak, repeating words and phrases. With echolalia, they might repeat words they hear in conversation but at the same time, make no attempt to initiate or continue a conversation meaningfully. Pointing at objects or using gestures are also forms of communication, which are absent in children with Autism. 

Behavioural Challenges

  • Excessive or unusual stimming, that includes rocking, flapping hands, spinning
  • Likes routines, gets easily upset by changes in routine
  • Difficulty with transitioning between activities
  • Unusual interest in certain activities or topics
  • Plays with just a part of the toy, instead of the whole object, like spinning the wheels, instead of playing with the whole toy car
  • Shows no pain or fear
  • Might be overly sensitive or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as sounds, lights, textures and touch

 Children with autism spectrum disorder are often restricted and inflexible in their behaviours, activities, and interests. Their behaviours can pose challenges to parents and disrupt day to day activities. Although stimming can be a self-soothing behaviour, children might need help to redirect and manage it if it is disruptive, excessive or unsafe. 

What to do?

If you see these early signs in your child, do not panic.  It would be best to discuss these concerns with your paediatrician or a developmental specialist. You know your child best so trust your instincts. If you are concerned about unusual behaviour, lack of communication or the way your child plays and behaves, discuss these concerns with your doctor.. It is best to monitor your child’s symptoms and not adopt a wait and see approach, which will only delay early intervention. Trust your instincts and take action. 

Autism has no cure but catching Autism early can make a huge difference in how your child and you manage their symptoms.  But no matter the age, getting the right intervention can help your child learn, thrive and grow. Your child is so much more than their diagnosis. Help them get the help they need. 

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