These days there’s lots of talk about catching early signs of autism in young kids, and even babies. If you have concerns about your kiddo’s language or social milestones, it can be hard to know if their “symptoms” are worth bringing up with the doctor.
Missing a milestone can be a red flag, but the signs aren’t always clear. The good news: there are certain things you can watch for.
The signs of autism spectrum disorder are far from being cut-and-dry, so it can be stressful if you’re not sure whether your kid’s just shy or “dreamy,” serious or reserved—or could actually benefit from some early interventions.
First, here’s some stuff that can be chalked up to typical differences in development, even if they might seem like red flags:
Remember that no kid hits milestones *exactly* when the experts say they should, and every child is different—so try not to compare your little one to their cousins and friends. There’s a lot of variation within how kids typically develop.
That said, though you should always feel free to take ANY concern to the pediatrician, there are several signs that should probably prompt a convo with your kiddo’s doc.
1️⃣ Your toddler isn’t communicating—at all.
I don’t mean they’re a late talker, I mean they’re not even showing you toys by pointing, pulling on your sleeve to get your attention, or making much eye contact.
They also might not look when you point out cool stuff like a fire truck, or respond when you call their name multiple times (even though they do respond to other sounds).
2️⃣ They don’t imitate you.
Starting when they’re babies, kids try to mimic our silly faces, sounds we make, or gestures like clapping or waving. Kiddos on the spectrum do this less often.
This goes for emotions, too—ever seen those internet videos of parents pretending to cry, only to have their baby start wailing, too? Imitating our feelings is part of our kids’ typical development (same with smiling and laughing).
3️⃣ They lose skills they’d already gained, or use them in different ways.
Sometimes kids with autism seem to be hitting milestones but then stall out, backslide & lose the skills they’d learned, or use those skills in an usual way.
For example, a baby might learn to babble & coo convos with you, but then stop. An older child might talk a lot—but only in movie quotes.
4️⃣ They have to have things a certain way – like, HAVE to.
My youngest used to freak out if I didn’t use his purple cup, or if I did the bedtime routine out of order. My oldest would line up his Transformers in a specific order every day. Those ended up being short-lived phases, though.
For kids on the spectrum, it’s not a phase. Plus, their fixations tend to be restrictive (like they’ll only watch one video, sleep on one set of sheets, or learn about one subject) or repetitive (like endlessly watching wheels spin on a toy car, or rocking their bodies back & forth).
5️⃣ They don’t really “get” pretend play.
Playing “store” or dress-up isn’t every kid’s fave activity, but most preschoolers at some point will act like they’re doctoring your pretend boo-boos, wear a bowl on their head like a hat, or set up a tea party for their dolls. Kiddos on the spectrum do this less often.
6️⃣ They don’t truly play *with* other people.
Usually, playing together involves looking at the same toy or activity (it’s called “joint attention”) and showing each other things—your child might point to a picture in the book you’re reading together, or hand you a toy she’s having trouble figuring out.
On the other hand, a child with autism might not do those things, or even be super interested in interacting with other people at all. They might communicate for things they need, like food or a potty break, but not for social reasons.
They can also have trouble noticing or figuring out what others are feeling (like why their friend is mad that they won’t share), and might not understand the concept of joking or teasing (as hilarious as your jokes surely are). 😉
Now, this obviously isn’t a COMPLETE list of signs, but they’re biggies to watch out for.
I know, most of us can see at least one of these quirks in our kids. If you’re only seeing one of these signs regularly and everything else seems fine, it doesn’t necessarily mean much.
It could indicate any number of things, from your child’s unique personality to mild hearing loss, or even a lull in language development while they focus on learning to kick a ball.
The bottom line is: if you suspect something might be up, don’t be shy about talking with your doc, or getting a second opinion. Kids on the spectrum really benefit from early support, so it’s always better to get things checked out sooner rather than later—in case your kiddo needs those interventions.