Recognizing Signs & Symptoms of Autism in Babies & Children

LAST MODIFIED: Thursday, April 25, 2019
Child sitting on dock with a teddy bear

The autism spectrum represents a range of related disorders that may influence a child’s development to a greater or lesser degree. The way in which autism affects a child varies considerably, but in general, autistic children have difficulty with:

  • Communication
  • Reacting appropriately to people, events and their environment.
  • Adapting thinking and behaviours to changing situations.

Despite the many approaches to helping autistic children and the fact that there are still many unknowns, every expert agrees that early intervention can help autistic children to develop and cope better. This requires early identification of autism. Be alert to the following signs and symptoms and get a professional opinion if you suspect that your child may be autistic.


Signs and Symptoms of Autism


Your baby doesn’t look you in the eye – one of the earliest forms of communication. When something moves, the baby or child does not respond by tracking the movement with his or her eyes. When you try to point towards something, the child does not follow the gesture with his or her eyes.


Verbal Communication

Babies usually start making noises to get your attention from an early age. ‘Baby talk’ should begin at 9 – 12 months. An unusually quiet child may be an indication of autism. Autistic children often don’t respond to their names or the sound of your voice. If a baby of 12 months or older is still not responding to his or her name, it’s time to investigate the cause.

Slow development in verbal communication may be the result of poor hearing, but it can also be a sign of autism. Typically, children with autism are slow in learning to speak. If no spoken words are produced by 16 months, parents should get help from an expert.

In milder cases, the child may learn to speak, but fails to do so at times when you would expect them to ask for help or request something.


Body Language

From 6-8 weeks of age, babies usually begin to smile during social interactions. A lack of social smiling could indicate autism. If you’re still not seeing any smiles by 6 months, you should see a pediatrician.

Babies learn movements and facial expressions by copying you. If this isn’t happening by 9 months, autism is a possible cause. Look out for a lack of gestures such as pointing at things, reaching out to be picked up or waving goodbye. If your baby or toddler is not responsive to cuddling and never ‘asks’ for a cuddle, you may want to go for a check-up with your little one.

All these signs show that a child is having difficulty with relating to others and the things around them. This affects their ability to play with adults or other children and their capacity for enjoying experiences with other people.

Happy smiling baby sitting in the grass

Autism in Older Children

It is believed that autism typically develops owing to genetic and pre-natal factors, but in milder cases of autism, parents may only begin seeing the red flags later on. However, the basic principles hold true: autistic children will exhibit difficulty in developing social skills, will have communication and language problems, will not be able to use non-verbal communication effectively and will have difficulty in adapting to various circumstances.


Problems With Socializing

Autistic children are often ‘loners’ owing to their difficulty in identifying with the things that amuse or interest other children. Playing and making friends or even sharing affection with their parents can be difficult for the autistic child.


Verbal Communication Issues

Speech patterns and tone of voice may seem ‘strange’. The child may adopt repetitive speech patterns, have difficulty in answering questions or seem unable to express needs and wants. When the child uses language, the grammar may be incorrect or the child may refer to him or herself as ‘he’ or ‘she’. As may be expected, the ability to comprehend what other people are saying when instructions or given or comments are made may be impaired.


Inability to Use Appropriate Body Language or Interpret it in Others

Typical signs of autism in older children include lack of eye contact, inappropriate facial expressions, an inability to interpret the facial expressions of others and a lack of communication by means of gestures.


Lack of Adaptability

Autistic children tend to follow specific routines and may create them if you don’t do so. They get upset if anything changes around the house or if their routine is interrupted or altered. They may become consistently fascinated by certain objects: cars, light-bulbs, keys.

Some autistic children become incredibly focused on feats involving memory, facts or figures to the exclusion of everything else. Autistic children may become obsessed with arranging or rearranging things or use repetitive movements like hand flapping.

If you suspect that your child is exhibiting symptoms of autism, consult your doctor immediately.