A few decades ago, children with autism might be well into their teenage years before getting an accurate diagnosis. Early detection means better treatment, so parents are increasingly monitoring for signs so they can get an early diagnosis and the services that come with it. With 1 in 50 children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, it doesn’t matter if you have no family history of autism and your child faces no risk factors. Any child can develop autism, including children who appear to be developing normal. Know the signs so that you can help your child as early as possible. Remember, autism is a spectrum, not a single diagnosis, so an autism diagnosis tells you little about your child’s long-term prospects.
Regression as a Red Flag
Regression—returning to an early stage of development or appearing to forget things he or she recently learned—is a hallmark of autism. Children with autism often appear to be developing normally until they’re about two, then suddenly regress to an earlier level of development by ceasing verbal communication, stopping pretend play, or appearing to have great difficulties with self-control or sensory overload.
Of course, regression is common among all children, particularly during times of stress. Talk to your pediatrician, but don’t forget about context. If your child has recently moved or gained a new sibling, expect her to regress for a week or two; regression is only cause for concern when it appears permanent.
Common Autism Signs
- The core symptoms of autism among toddlers include:
- Does not look at objects you point to.
- Has few or no verbal skills.
- Does not make eye contact.
- Struggles to understand others’ feelings.
- Seems uninterested in playing or interacting with other people.
- Rarely shows affection toward others.
- Disinterest in stuffed animals and dolls, or using these toys for something other than caregiving play.
- Does not ask for help, even when he is struggling.
- Does not seem soothed by cuddling.
- Is unusually sensitive to sights, smells, sounds, or touch. Many children with autism can’t stand wearing socks, certain fabrics, or specific pitches.
- Has no meaningful two-word phrases that aren’t the result of imitating or repeating something an adult has said.
- Doesn’t point or use other gestures to communicate.
- Doesn’t seem to notice when you or another beloved caregiver leaves the room.
- Doesn’t pay attention when others talk to her.
- Doesn’t know how to interact with other children.
- Isn’t eager to share his or her favorite activities with loved ones. Children with autism aren’t typically excited about coloring with a sibling or showing mom or dad their latest artistic endeavor.
A Cautionary Note
A child who has one or two symptoms of autism is not necessarily going to be diagnosed with the condition, so there’s no need to panic. Lots of children take a little longer than average to develop, and children can regress during development for a number of reasons. Thus the key to a proper diagnosis isn’t just knowing the symptoms you might find in a textbook. Instead, you must know what’s normal for your child, as well as for children in your family. If most kids in your family don’t speak till they’re two, then your child will probably be slow to talk, too, and her delayed speech doesn’t necessarily suggest autism.
Learn your family history, and carefully monitor your child’s behavior so you know what’s normal and what’s not. Educating yourself about typical child development is also of paramount importance. Doing so can help you detect autism early, but can also save you from needless panic.