The 101 Guide to the Signs of Autism

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is “a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain,” according to the CDC. The number of children with autism is increasing as research and testing improves — in 2016, the CDC reported that about 1 in 54 children have autism as opposed to 1 in 59 children just two years prior. Of that, the 2016 study found that boys were diagnosed four times more than girls (1 in 34 boys have autism versus 1 in 144 girls). 

Now, there is simply more information about autism in children to help parents and doctors spot the signs earlier, reducing any lasting impacts. Like anything else, the earlier you spot the signs of autism, the sooner you can help. Because it is a complex disorder without an official test or cure-all, many people go undiagnosed, especially those with a high-functioning form of autism. In fact, most children are diagnosed after four years old, potentially delaying their communication and social skills even more. 

Read on to learn more about the causes of autism in children, what signs you should look for, and how to get your child properly diagnosed. 

The Causes of Autism in Children 

What makes autism especially difficult to diagnose is the fact that there isn’t one known cause. Generally speaking, many researchers link autism to genetics — some autism is the result of genetic mutations; other times, it can be associated with other genetic disorders like Rett Syndrome. 

According to MayoClinic, common risk factors linked to autism include family history, your child’s sex, parent’s ages, other medical disorders, and preterm birth. Families who have one child with autism are more likely to have another child with autism — the same goes for parents who carry the gene, even if they don’t have autism themselves. Some studies also draw a connection between older parents and those who give birth to children with autism, leading some to believe that parent’s ages may increase the chances of autism in children. Babies born before 26 weeks of gestation may also pose a greater risk of autism. 

Common Signs of Autism to Look Out For

The visible signs and age of diagnosis vary from child to child. Some children may show signs of autism early on, while others may not develop visible signs until they’re 2 or 3 years old. Even more so, not all children with autism show signs — or they may merely show one or two signs every now and then. As outlined by AutismSpeaks, the following signs are the most common ones that you may spot in a range of age groups (but keep in mind that they may not always be linked to autism).

  • By six months, children with autism may not smile often (or at all), or show warm or engaging expressions. Eye contact may also be limited or nonexistent. 
  • By nine months, children with autism may not share sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions often or at all. 
  • By 12 months, children with autism may babble little or not at all, make few or no gestures like pointing, reaching, or waving, or have a limited response to their name.
  • By 16 months, children with autism may speak rarely or not at all. 
  • By 24 months, children with autism may say few or no two-word phrases (excluding situations where they may be repeating or imitating). 

At any age, the following are common signs of autism, according to AutismSpeaks:

  • Loss of speech, babbling, or previously-acquired social skills over a period of time.
  • Regular avoidance of eye contact.
  • Generally prefers solitude over everyday social situations. 
  • Finds it hard to understand other people’s feelings .
  • Delayed language development.
  • Tends to repeat words or phrases a.k.a. Echolalia.
  • Regular fear or discomfort with change — whether big or small
  • Limited interests 
  • Repetitive behaviors like flapping or rocking 
  • Unusual reactions to various sounds, smells, tastes, textures, light, and color  


Next Steps to Take If You Spot Signs of Autism

Because autism is a complex developmental disorder, it may be hard to spot signs at first. However, if you are concerned that your child has autism, it is important to get them evaluated quickly. 

If your child is three and under, then the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised by AutismSpeaks, is a great place to start. Here, you can answer 20 simple questions — For example, “If you point at something across the room, does your child look at it?” — to determine if you should contact your healthcare provider for further evaluation. Of course, if you have any doubts at all, contact your child’s doctor to determine the next steps.

Currently, there isn’t a medical test to rule out autism in children. That means that if autism is suspected, your child will go through a series of evaluations to examine their language delays and social skills. Along with observation of your child at play and a detailed physical examination, your child’s doctor may suggest a language evaluation, hearing test, and overall assessment of skills that align with your child’s age group, including motor, cognitive, and self-help skills. Regardless if autism is suspected or not, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends developmental and behavioral screenings (similar to the ones listed above) at well-child visits at 9, 18, and 30 months. The AAP also suggests that children should be screened for autism at well-child visits at 18 and 24 months, no matter if the child has previously shown warning signs of autism. 

Since every child develops at different stages — remember that some may simply develop later than the average — doctors use these screening tools to indicate whether a child is on the right developmental track or if they should keep a closer watch. In cases where a child is suspected of having autism, doctors may refer them to a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist, speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, or another specialist.  

Common Treatments for Children with Autism 

There aren’t any treatments that cure autism, but there are several, especially for children, that reduce symptoms, improve cognitive abilities, and increase a child’s ability to function in society fully. Treatment is broken up into four categories, per the CDC: behavior and communication approaches, medication, diet, and alternative medicine. While there are medications available that can increase focus, manage high energy levels, and alleviate depression or anxiety, none tackle all of the symptoms associated with autism. That’s why different types of therapy and care — speech therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills training — are encouraged in conjunction with traditional medicine. 

Complications Associated with Autism

Many children with autism grow up to become influential thought leaders, artists, and trailblazers in science, technology, sports, and more. Still, living with autism can prevent many challenges — manageable but not foolproof. According to AutismSpeaks, many people with autism also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or chronic sleep disorders. Mental health disorders are also prevalent among children with autism: Anywhere from 11 to 40 percent of children with autism have anxiety, along with an additional 7 percent who have depression. They are also more prone to epilepsy, gastrointestinal disorders, schizophrenia, and obesity. 

Early intervention, however, can lessen the risk of further challenges by improving communication and social skills and aiding with brain development.