First Signs & Symptoms

The most important thing a parent can do is learn the early signs of autism and understand the typical developmental milestones your child should be reaching at different ages.

Because children develop at their own rate, no one can tell exactly when a child will learn a specific skill. Milestones measure how a child plays, learns, speaks and acts, and a delay in any of these areas could be a sign of a developmental problem.  The developmental milestones outlined by the Center for Disease Control’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early” campaign provide a general idea of the changes you can expect as your child gets older. For example, the milestones to look for in the development of a typical 2-year-old in the area of language include:

  • Points to object or picture when it's named for him
  • Recognizes names of familiar people, objects, and body parts
  • Says several single words (by 15 to 18 months)
  • Uses simple phrases (by 18 to 24 months)
  • Uses 2- to 4-word sentences
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation

As with any child with special needs, early identification is essential. The earlier a developmental problem is recognized, the sooner interventions can be implemented and the easier it is to help children reach their full potential.  For a child with Autism, these interventions should be started before deviation and delay from the normal pattern of development has progressed too far.  Early recognition of the condition also allows families to receive advice and support to help them adjust and respond to the child's challenges.

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, “there are a number of things that parents, teachers, and others who care for children can look for to determine if a child needs to be evaluated for Autism.” Some “RED FLAGS” that could be a sign that a pediatrician or other health professional should evaluate a child for autism or a related communication disorder include:

  • does not respond to his/her name
  • cannot explain what he/she wants
  • has language skills or speech that is delayed
  • doesn't follow directions
  • at times, seems to be deaf
  • seems to hear sometimes, but not others
  • doesn't point or wave bye-bye
  • used to say a few words or babble, but now he/she doesn't
  • throws intense or violent tantrums
  • has odd movement patterns
  • is hyperactive, uncooperative, or oppositional
  • doesn't know how to play with toys
  • doesn't smile when smiled at
  • has poor eye contact
  • gets "stuck" on things over and over and can't move on to other things
  • seems to prefer to play alone
  • gets things for him/herself only
  • is very independent for his/her age
  • does things "early" compared to other children
  • seems to be in his/her "own world"
  • seems to tune people out
  • is not interested in other children
  • walks on his/her toes
  • shows unusual attachments to toys, objects, or schedules (i.e., always holding a string or having to put socks on before pants)
  • spends a lot of time lining things up or putting things in a certain order

Keep in mind that autism usually isn't diagnosed until about age 3, although some experts believe that some children begin to show subtle signs as early as six months of age. If you have any worries about your child's development, please speak to your doctor. Developmental screening is performed at every baby well visit, but screening specifically for autism may be done as early as 16 months of age.