Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show developmental differences when they are babies—especially in their social and language skills. Because they usually sit, crawl, and walk on time, less obvious differences in the development of body gestures, pretend play, and social language often go unnoticed.
In addition to speech/language delays and behavioral differences, families may notice differences in the way their child interacts with peers and others.
Recognizing signs of autism
Here are some examples of social, communication, and behavioral differences in children with autism.
Keep in mind: one child with ASD will not have exactly the same symptoms as another child with ASD. The number and severity of symptoms can vary a lot!
Social differences in children with autism
- May not keep eye contact or makes little or no eye contact
- Shows no or less response to a parent’s smile or other facial expressions
- May not look at objects or events a parent is looking at or pointing to
- May not point to objects or events to get a parent to look at them
- Less likely to bring objects of personal interest to show to a parent
- Many not have appropriate facial expressions
- Has difficulty perceiving what others might be thinking or feeling by looking at their facial expressions
- Less likely to show concern (empathy) for others
- Has difficulty making and keeping friends
Communication differences in children with autism
- Less likely to point at things to indicate needs or share things with others
- Says no single words by 15 months or 2-word phrases by 24 months
- Repeats exactly what others say without understanding the meaning (often called parroting or echoing)
- May not respond to name being called but does respond to other sounds (like a car horn or a cat’s meow)
- May refers to self as “you” and others as “I” and may mix up pronouns
- May show no or less interest in communicating
- Less likely to start or continue a conversation
- Less likely to use toys or other objects to represent people or real life in pretend play
- May have a good rote memory, especially for numbers, letters, songs, TV jingles, or a specific topic
- May lose language or other social milestones, usually between the ages of 15 and 24 months (often called regression)
Behavioral differences (repetitive & obsessive behaviors) in children with autism
- Rocks, spins, sways, twirls fingers, walks on toes for a long time, or flaps hands (called “stereotypic behavior” or stereotypies)
- Likes routines, order, and rituals; has difficulty with change or transition from one activity to another
- May be obsessed with a few or unusual activities, doing them repeatedly during the day
- Plays with parts of toys instead of the whole toy (e.g., spinning the wheels of a toy truck)
- May not cry if in pain or seem to have any fear
- May be very sensitive or not sensitive at all to smells, sounds, lights, textures, and touch
- May have unusual use of vision or gaze—looks at objects from unusual angles
|Parents: trust your instinctsIf you have concerns about how your child plays, learns, speaks, acts, or moves, talk with your pediatrician. Before you go to the appointment, complete a free developmental milestone checklist, and read these tips about “How to Talk with the Doctor.”Remember, you know your child best and your concerns are important. Together, you and your pediatrician will find the best way to help your child. If you’re uneasy about the doctor’s advice, seek a second opinion.Don’t wait. Acting early can make a big difference in your child’s development!|
How to distinguish a child with autism from other typically developing children
Here are some examples that may help a parent tell the difference between normal, age-appropriate behavior and early signs of ASD.
At 12 Months
- A child with typical development will turn their head when they hear their name.
- A child with ASD might not turn to look, even after their name is repeated several times, but will respond to other sounds.
At 18 Months
- A child with delayed speech skills will point, gesture, or use facial expressions to make up for their lack of talking.
- A child with ASD might make no attempt to compensate for delayed speech or might limit speech to repeating what they hear on TV or what they just heard.
At 24 Months
- A child with typical development brings a picture to show their mother and shares their joy from it with her.
- A child with ASD might bring their mom bottle of bubbles to open, but they do not look at her face when they do or share in the pleasure of playing together.