101 Guide to the Signs of Autism

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. 


5 Famous People with Autism

5 Famous People with Autism

In 2016, the CDC reported that autism affects 1 in 54 children. They, of course, grow up, pursue their passions, take on new challenges, and go after their goals. While autism can certainly present complications — socially, mentally, and physically — many people go on to lead healthy, successful lives. In fact, there are a number of famous people with autism that might surprise you — some created blockbuster hits, others shared their voice with the world and made history. But all of them, in one way or another, pulled from their disability to better their craft, their approach, and their unique relationship with their audience. In other words, they are using their voices and talents for good, shedding light on the prevalence of autism in adults and making those in a similar position feel less alone. 

Here, we’ve highlighted five famous people with autism — all of their stories, while different, share a common thread that’ll leave you inspired. 

Dan Aykroyd

If you’re a long-time Saturday Night Live fan, then you know Dan Aykroyd. Otherwise, you may know the 68-year-old actor from his work in The Blues Brothers, Driving Miss Daisy, and Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters, the supernatural comedy released in 1984 that Aykroyd wrote and starred in, is the result of Aykroyd’s autism: “One of my symptoms included my obsession with ghosts and law enforcement — I carry around a police badge with me, for example. I became obsessed with Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever. That’s when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born,” he said during an interview with Daily Mail. In that same interview, he mentioned that he also has Asperger’s, which is common among adults with autism. He wasn’t diagnosed with either autism or Asperger’s until the 1980s — well into his adulthood — “when my wife persuaded me to see a doctor.”


David Byrne

David Byrne wears many hats. In the last few years alone, he’s appeared on Broadway, released a concert film (American Utopia), and even scored a Grammy nomination. The award-winning filmmaker, writer, and all-around musical genius uses his experience with autism to his advantage. Early on, Byrne felt uncomfortable with himself and in social settings. Then he realized that the very thing that makes him different — his need to ask questions, his intensity, and his desire to read the room —is his strength. “At an earlier point in my life, not so much now, I felt very uncomfortable socially. The idea of observing and asking, like, “Am I supposed to do that? Is that what people do?” probably goes along with it a little bit. Or it’s the intense focus on songwriting or artwork I was doing at the time. As other people have said, a little bit isn’t the worst thing in the world,” he said during an interview with wbur


But since he’s one of the select famous people with autism who speaks so openly about what it’s like to live with this disability, he’s become a symbol of strength in some ways. In that same interview, he explained how he copes with his own reality — as hard as it may be. “However we are, we don’t know how to be another way. That’s the way we are, and you change over the years … but at that earlier point, that’s who you are. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m unhappy, I wish I was more like this happy, gregarious person who is more socially adept.” I just figured I’m not. I’ll make friends with the socially adept person, and they’ll be the one who brings everyone in,” he continued. 

Daryl Hannah

The moment actress Daryl Hannah was diagnosed with autism; everything made sense. As a child, the Kill Bill and Steel Magnolias star was “a little odd and incredibly introverted (her own words in an interview with Australia’s Women’s Weekly).” As she’s aged, she realized that her symptoms are just a part of who she is: “But it’s the way I am; the way I have always been. I’m still not great in crowds. I’m fine one on one , but in larger groups, I lose my sense of self. Big events are always uncomfortable for me and I don’t know if I will ever grow out of it. I try to keep those feelings under control but it takes a lot of focus, and concentration, and energy. It’s not always easy,” she says.

But her own shyness and discomfort brought on by autism are what ultimately led her to be an actress. “Acting for me was about going to the Land of Oz and meeting the Tin Man. It still it,” she told People via Today

Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby is a force in the comedy world, especially because she’s not afraid to address the realities of autism in adults. A staple in the Australian entertainment scene, Gadsby hit it big when her stand-up show, Nanette, was released on Netflix internationally. Shortly after, she toured with another stand-up show called Douglas, which touched on her experience living with autism — albeit, being one of the few famous people with autism.People on the spectrum … sort of feel like an alien being dropped in from outer space, and you can’t quite connect properly. Being on stage and making a room full of people laugh, felt like a connection I hadn’t been able to establish in any other environment,” she said during her 2019 show. 


Her diagnosis, actually, gave her a sense of understanding she had never felt before, as outlined in an interview with NPR. “So when I was diagnosed, it just gave me permission to be kinder to myself, to not always take responsibility for being a bit clumsy around other people, and allow me to start to tell people, ‘I’m clumsy, but I [don’t] mean to be.’ And being more open about, ‘I need you to tell me what I did wrong, and then we can move on from there.’ Whereas, I would just get in a lot of trouble with my friends and whatnot for being insensitive. And it was kind of a double bind because I’m very sensitive and I’m very thoughtful, but I miss things that other people sort of go, ‘You should just know that.’”

She, like many other adults with autism, has learned ways to lean into the discomfort of common social situations. “I’ve spent my whole life really trying to study the room — that is one of my special subjects. So in many ways, I appear very good at being social. But it’s an incredibly exhausting process for me,” she continued. 

Susan Boyle

Everyone remembers the moment the world heard Susan Boyle’s singing voice for the first time. Back in 2009, she wowed the Britains Got Talent judges panel during her audition and placed second in the entire competition. Still, she has gone on to achieve international success as an opera singer in the years following. A few years into her career, she opened up about her Asperger’s diagnosis (note: Asperger’s and autism are not the same disorder, but have similar symptoms). “I have Aspergers. That made me more determined to be where I want to be. You don’t fight without some resentment,” she told The Guardian. “Asperger’s doesn’t define me. It’s a condition that I have to live with and work through, but I feel more relaxed about myself. People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do.”


Signs of Autism

The Early Signs of Autism

Do you have questions about your child’s development?   Most children across the US  are not diagnosed with autism until 4 to 5 years of age, while recent research has shown that the early signs of autism begin to unfold from 9 to 16 months. Early detection and early intensive intervention have shown to have a profound impact on the quality of life for children at risk and their families. 

While the American Academy of Pediatrics’s current recommendation is to screen all toddlers ages 18 to 24 months, it’s never too premature to contact your doctor if you notice possible signs of autism.

Research surrounding autism in babies is limited, and the few early signs we do know from the research are easy to miss. Between 9-18 months there are a few absolute indicators, often referred to as “red flagswhich indicate a child should be evaluated for autism.

What are the Red Flags of Autism Spectrum Disorder in babies 9 to 16 months:  

It is hard to get your baby to look at you.  

Babies are motivated to be near you, look at your face and linger their gaze on your eyes.

Your child rarely shares enjoyment with you.  

Babies readily share the enjoyment with you by smiling or looking at you.  Some children show little facial expression or have a flat affect and rarely smile so you may not know when they are happy.

Your child rarely shares their interests with you. 

Babies are eager to share with you, first with gestures like showing and pointing, and then with sounds and words. In order to discover what your baby is interested in, notice what they are paying attention to. 

Your child rarely responds to their name or other means of getting their attention.  

Babies are tuned to listen to your voice – when you call their name, they respond by looking at you.  Some children with autism don’t respond by looking where you’re pointing or waving “bye-bye” when you leave.

Your child displays limited use of gestures, especially showing and pointing.  

Babies are eager to draw your attention to things they’re interested in using gestures such as showing and pointing by 12-14 months of age.  These early gestures propel the development of words.

There is little or no imitating other people or pretending.  

By 13 months, children begin to learn by observing others and copying what they do and say.  From this form of imitation, they learn to pretend in play.  They may offer you a sip with a cup or bottle or give their teddy bear a hug and cover him with a blanket.  Children with autism usually have strengths in using objects in solitary play such as putting together train tracks, building towers with blocks, etc.

They might use your hand as a tool.  

Because children with autism may have limited use of early gestures such as giving, reaching, raising arms, waving, and pointing, they may develop unusual ways to communicate, like pushing your hand toward a desired object instead of pointing to the object.   

Your baby is more interested in objects than people.  

Babies are eager to interact with people and use objects as a way to get your attention. If your baby focuses much of her attention on objects, rather than on faces, or people, this may be a warning sign. 

They may show unusual ways of moving their fingers, hands, or body.  

They may show unusual stiffening or flaring of their fingers or unusual ways of posturing or moving their hands or body.

They may repeat unusual movements with objects.  

Unusual movements with objects may be: spinning or wobbling, knocking over and rolling, and lining things up or other repetitive actions that are unusual for their age.

They may develop rituals and may get very upset over change.  

Babies usually flow with changes in routines such as ending an activity early or adding a new step.  A child with autism may insist on certain things being the same and get very upset over unexpected change.  

They may show excessive interest in particular objects or activities

An intense interest can lead to skills that are advanced for their age, such as building with blocks or learning about shapes, letters, or numbers.  This interest may be so intense that it’s difficult to shift their attention away from an object of interest to something else. 

They may be very focused on or attached to unusual objects.  

Such as long strips of cloth, utensils, rocks, sticks, flowing water, or gadgets they can take apart and put together.

They show unusual reactions to sound, sights, or textures.  

They may get overly excited about a page in a book or hold their hands over their ears in response to a loud sound or squint or flap their hands to certain lights or gag when they eat food with certain textures.

They show strong interest in unusual sensory experiences.  

Such as excessive rubbing of certain textures, looking out the side of their eyes or closely inspecting a block or toy train as it rolls by, or licking objects.

Anyone of these signs may not be a problem, but in combination, they may signal a need to conduct a screening or diagnostic evaluation.

As a general guide, if your child is between 9 to 18 months and shows any 4 of these early signs, please reach out to your pediatrician and ask for a developmental screening.

If your child shows 8 or more of these early signs, ask for a referral for a diagnostic evaluation.  Early detection and early intervention can have a lifetime impact for children with autism.  This opportunity to catch signs of autism early in development can help guide your child toward success.”

CAC offers free screenings and has additional resources available to help guide parents with concerns about their child’s development.