As a parent or caregiver, it can be difficult to determine whether or not your child is displaying traits associated with autism. Developmental milestones tell us at what ages skills typically develop, but there can still be a lot of variability from child to child.
It’s important to remember that not all children with autism will display the same characteristics!
Also note, we will talk about the characteristics or traits associated with autism rather than using the word “symptom” because autism is not an illness or disease. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how people think, behave, interact, and communicate. It is not a disease that can be “cured”.
Some characteristics that are commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder are listed below. Your child may show a few or many of these characteristics.
Being familiar with autism traits can help you identify them in your child, which could result in your child receiving the support they may need at an earlier age.
- Difficulty making and keeping friends
- Does not imitate peers
- Makes little to no eye contact
- Does not “check in” during social interactions by making eye contact or showing items
- Prefers to be alone or shows interest in others but does not know how to engage with them
- Difficulty understanding emotions of self and others
- Does not engage in physical affection in a typical way
- Apparent lack of empathy or is hyper-empathic (highly sensitive to others’ emotions)
- Does not respond to their name in a typical fashion (e.g. does not turn toward you or make eye contact)
- Does not engage in joint attention (e.g. does not show objects to you, does not look at objects someone is showing them or pointing to)
- Plays next to peers but does not engage in play with them
- Delayed speech, may use little to no words
- May guide others’ hands to desired items
- Points instead of vocalizing needs
- May not point at all
- Mixes up pronouns and refer to self as “you” and others as “I”
- Cries or screams to get needs met in place of using words
- Uses one or a few words to request a variety of things. For example, may use “go” for up, help, more, etc.
- May no longer use language that they previously had
- Has difficulty following simple or complex instructions
Emotional and Behavioral Skills
- Difficulty regulating emotions, may take a long time to calm down or may fixate on an event
- Strong adherence to routines and rules and may become upset if routines are disrupted
- Displays hypo- or hyper-sensitivity to sensory input (e.g. sensitivity to light, high/low pain tolerance), may become overstimulated easily
- May cry or be sad for no apparent reason
- Has difficulty expressing emotions and identifying feelings in self
- May take longer to learn to use the restroom (potty training), or may continue using diapers/pull ups past the age of 3
- Engages in “stereotypical” behaviors such as rocking, repetitive vocalizations, hand flapping, spinning, repetitive play, or looking at objects with their peripheral vision
- Displays a strong interest in specific topics such as animals, letters, trains, rocks, etc. and may choose to spend time learning more about and engaging with these topics
- Eats non-edible items such as dirt and rocks (known as PICA)
- Has a restricted diet and will only eat certain foods, may become distressed when new foods are presented
What are the next steps if you notice some of these autism traits?
Whether your child engages in many or a few of these behaviors, it is important that you discuss it with your child’s doctor. Your doctor can help you navigate the next steps to getting an autism diagnosis.
Your doctor may recommend an evaluation from a specialist such as a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist, neurologist, or psychiatrist, who can provide an autism diagnosis.
Also, it is important to remember that an autism diagnosis does not determine your child’s future. Rather, a diagnosis can help you and your child gain important skills, get access to services, and appreciate the differences that are a part of autism.
If you are concerned about your child, do not use the “wait and see” approach. Talk with your child’s doctor about your concerns and request an autism screening or a full developmental evaluation as soon as possible.
What are some other helpful tips for families concerned about signs of autism?
- Write down your observations and bring the list with you to your child’s next appointment
- Bring up your concerns, even if you are not sure if they are valid
- Record short video clips of behaviors of concerns to show to your doctor
- Document the age at which your child reached developmental milestones such as talking and walking
- If you are concerned about speech delays or motor delays, ask your child’s pediatrician about Speech and Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy, these services do not require an autism diagnosis to begin services
- Don’t delay, be proactive and talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns and bring documentation, notes, and videos with you to the appointment
For more frequently asked questions about autism, watch the MeBe ABA: 101 video series, available in English and Spanish.