Common Childhood Autism Symptoms

Autism symptoms are not always obvious in infancy and early childhood. Knowing the early signs of autism in infants and toddlers can help you know when to be concerned, when to rest easy, and when to get professional help.

Childhood autism symptoms can be confusing and difficult to identify with certainty. Since every child is different, it's sometimes hard to say if the behaviors we observe are early signs of autism, or just quirky personality traits of that individual child. If you do seek a professional evaluation, you will soon find that testing for childhood autism is not like testing for strep throat. Autism testing is time-consuming, and sometimes inconclusive. This is because practically every human being on the planet displays one or more autism characteristics.

If you are worried about your child displaying what you think might be autism symptoms, you may use the following checklist to help you identify possible early signs of autism. Keep in mind that in the top half of the form you will be looking for the items your child <b>does not or did not</b> do, while on the bottom part of the form you will be looking for behaviors your child <b>does or did</b> exhibit.

The more items you find that are true of your child, the greater the likelihood that your child is showing early signs of autism. However, please note: 

This is not a diagnostic tool!

There is no "magic number" of listed behaviors that identifies a child as having autism. The purpose of this checklist is simply to help you identify behaviors you observe that are (or are not) consistent with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

List #1: My child does not (or did not) do the following:

  • Smiles or laughs spontaneously
  • Smiles socially
  • Imitates sounds and facial expressions
  • Laughs socially
  • Responds to his/her name
  • Responds to familiar voices
  • Visually tracks familiar people or desired objects
  • Follows my gesture and/or eye gaze when I point something out (e.g., pictures in a book)
  • Makes noises and/or gestures to get my attention
  • Likes being held and cuddled
  • Plays with adults or other children
  • Uses communicative gestures (e.g. waving "bye-bye")
  • Produces first words or signs by 18 months
  • Produces two-word phrases by 30 months

List #2: My child does (or did) the following:

  • Appears obsessed with a particular activity (e.g., jumping, a favorite toy, computer games, etc.)
  • Stopped talking, or talked less, after starting to say words
  • Stopped using gestures, eye contact, and other forms of social communication after starting to use them.
  • Appears hypersensitive to certain sounds or types of light
  • Has difficulty tolerating certain tastes or textures in food
  • Is a light or picky eater
  • Lines up toys such as cars, dolls, or building blocks rather than playing with them
  • Gets upset if established routines are skipped or done out of order

Most parents will find at least one or two items that apply to their own children, even children who do not have autism. For example, when my son (now a teenager) was young, he didn't particularly like being held and cuddled (actually, he still doesn't, at least not by his parents); he also produced very few words by 18 months and did not produce two-word phrases at 30 months. However, he is definitely not on the autism spectrum.

On the other hand, I have worked with dozens of children with autism, and for every single one of them there are items on the checklist that don't apply. So use it to guide you in your thinking, but don't expect it to give you an answer.

Return from Autism Characteristics to Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

Return from Autism Characteristics to Speech-Language Development home page.

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