Signs of Autism


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by:

  • social impairments
  • cognitive impairments
  • communication difficulties
  • repetitive behaviors

Because Autism is a spectrum disorder, it can range from very mild to very severe and occur in all ethnic, socioeconomic and age groups. Males are four times more likely to have autism than females. Some children with autism appear normal before age 1 or 2 and then suddenly “regress” and lose language or social skills they had previously gained. This is called the regressive type of autism.

Early Signs:

A person with ASD might:

  • Not respond to their name (the child may appear deaf)
  • Not point at objects or things of interest, or demonstrate interest
  • Not play “pretend” games
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Want to be alone
  • Have difficulty understanding, or showing understanding, or other people’s feelings or their own
  • Have no speech or delayed speech
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions (over or under-sensitivity) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
  • Have low to no social skills
  • Avoid or resist physical contact
  • Demonstrate little safety or danger awareness
  • People with autism may also:

    • Have unusual interests and behaviors
    • Have extreme anxiety and phobias, as well as unusual phobias
    • Line up toys or other objects
    • Play with toys the same way every time
    • Like parts of objects (e.g., wheels)
    • Become upset by minor changes
    • Have obsessive interests

    Other Symptoms:

    • Hyperactivity (very active)
    • Impulsivity (acting without thinking)
    • Short attention span
    • Aggression
    • Causing self injury
    • Meltdowns
    • Unusual eating and sleeping habits
    • Unusual mood or emotional reactions
    • Lack of fear or more fear than expected
    • Have unusual sleeping habits
  • Developmental Screening

    Developmental screening is a short test to tell if children are learning basic skills when they should, or if they might have delays. During developmental screening the doctor might ask the parent some questions or talk and play with the child during an exam to see how she learns, speaks, behaves, and moves. A delay in any of these areas could be a sign of a problem.

    All children should be screened for developmental delays and disabilities during regular well-child doctor visits at:

    • 9 months
    • 18 months
    • 24 or 30 months
  • Additional screening might be needed if a child is at high risk for developmental delays due to preterm birth, low birth weight, having a sibling with ASD or if behaviors associated with ASDs are present.

    If your child’s doctor does not routinely check your child with this type of developmental screening test, ask that it be done.  If the doctor sees any signs of a problem, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation is needed.

    Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation

    The second step of diagnosis is a comprehensive evaluation. This thorough review may include looking at the child’s behavior and development and interviewing the parents. It may also include a hearing and vision screening, genetic testing, neurological testing, and other medical testing.

    In some cases, the primary care doctor might choose to refer the child and family to a specialist for further assessment and diagnosis. Specialists who can do this type of evaluation include:

    • Developmental Pediatricians (doctors who have special training in child development and children with special needs)
    • Child Neurologists (doctors who work on the brain, spine, and nerves)
    • Child Psychologists or Psychiatrists (doctors who know about the human mind)