Autism symptoms in toddlers

As a parent watching their young child explore the world, it is concerning to see them not hitting their developmental milestones at the right age. Neurodevelopmental disorders like Autism are more common than you think. Autism symptoms fall on a spectrum, which means that each child’s symptoms are different, which in turn means that Autism can go undetected for several months. While most children receive an Autism diagnosis at around three years of age, it can sometimes be caught as early as 18 months. Here, we offer a guide to the signs and symptoms of Autism in toddlers and young children so you know what to watch out for.

Understanding Autism

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect social, behavioral, and communicative abilities. Children with Autism often have trouble following rules or communicating with others, which makes it hard for them to form relationships. The symptoms of Autism will usually become evident by the time the child is two or three years old. Occupational Therapy, Behavioral Therapy, Speech Therapy, and Social Skills Therapy are all useful forms of intervention to help the child adjust better to social situations.

Autism symptoms in babies

For some children, Autism symptoms appear as early as in the first few months of life. Since there are no obvious physical symptoms, it can be hard to detect these. However, parents can observe how the baby interacts with the world around them and take note of any unusual behaviors. Some of the early signs of Autism in babies include:

By three months

  • Not making eye contact
  • Not paying attention to new faces
  • Not following moving objects with their eyes

By seven months

  • Not smiling or laughing
  • Not reaching for objects
  • Not cooing or babbling
  • Not responding to games like peek-a-boo
  • Not showing affection for parents or caregivers

By 12 months

  • Not pointing to pictures or objects
  • Not responding when their name is said, but responding to other sounds like meows or barks
  • Not yet saying their first word

It is important, however, to remember that some children simply meet developmental milestones later than others. As such, observing a few Autism symptoms in babies does not have to be cause for panic.

Symptoms of Autism in toddlers

As your child grows up, the developmental differences become more apparent. However, this is not always the case. Particularly if your child has only mild Autism symptoms, they may simply be attributed to naught behavior or a reserved nature. In addition, Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that the range of symptoms each child displays is highly different. The common signs and symptoms of Autism in toddlers can be categorized into three types. These include:

1. Communication / language symptoms

  • Repeating the same phrases over 
  • Repeating back what is said when spoken to
  • Delayed speech and language skills compared to peers
  • Not pointing to objects or people, or not responding when other people point
  • Not starting or keeping up conversations
  • Speaking in a monotonous or sing-song voice
  • Not understanding jokes, sarcasm, or other nuances of speech
  • Reversing pronouns, such as by saying ‘you’ in place of ‘I’
  • Losing language, typically between 15 and 24 months, a symptom called regression

2. Social skills related symptoms

  • Not responding when their name is called
  • Not making facial expressions
  • Not smiling back when a loved one smiles at them
  • Avoiding physical contact such as hugs
  • Not understanding when given instructions
  • Not wanting to play with other children or with caregivers
  • Not wanting to share toys or other things
  • Hard to comfort or soothe when upset or angry
  • Not understanding other people’s feelings

3. Irregular behavior symptoms

  • Making repetitive movements like hand flapping or rocking back and forth
  • Getting very upset by certain smells or sounds
  • Getting very upset by even small changes in routine
  • Having obsessive interest in specific objects or parts of objects, like toys with spinning wheels
  • Doing a few things repeatedly all day, such as shutting doors or counting things
  • Playing with toys the same way all the time
  • Looking at objects from unusual angles
  • Having frequent, often aggressive tantrums
  • Being impulsive
  • Being hyperactive
  • Showing either a lack of fear or unusual amounts of fear
  • Displaying self-injuring behaviors, like pinching or hitting head against a wall

Autism symptoms in girls Vs in boys

It is commonly observed that Autism is diagnosed much more frequently in boys, than in girls. This is because certain unusual behaviors, for instance, might be more noticeable in boys on account of the toys they typically play with. An obsession with the wheels of cars or with lining up Lego blocks the same way, again and again, is fairly noticeable. On the other hand, a tendency in girls to arrange their dolls in a straight line or dress them all the same way might just be viewed as a liking for neatness or those particular clothes. 

It has also been observed that girls with Autism, particularly the high-functioning kind, are able to mimic neurotypical social traits much better than boys. Girls may also be culturally expected to be quieter and shyer than boys, which is why traits such as not making eye contact or being withdrawn around people could be viewed positively as modesty, rather than as Autism symptoms in toddlers.

What to do if you suspect your child has Autism

If you have been monitoring your child’s developmental progress and suspect that they might have Autism, the first thing is to not fret needlessly. Sometimes, children may simply reach developmental milestones later than other children. It is important, nonetheless, to take your child to the pediatrician for a proper screening. Ideally, you should have them screened at nine months of age, and at the very least at 12 months of age.

There is no single test that can diagnose Autism. Instead, the doctor will closely monitor your child and ask you detailed questions about the symptoms you have observed so far. Putting your child in a social setting, such as with a therapist or in a play group with other children, is a useful way of noting Autism symptoms in toddlers. If the pediatrician suspects Autism, they may recommend you to a specialist for further testing. It may take a while to actually confirm a diagnosis, as many of the signs and symptoms of Autism in toddlers are not conclusive until much later. 

If your child indeed has Autism, there are several excellent treatment options available to manage the symptoms and help them function effectively. The therapist will tailor a plan to your child to help them learn positive behaviors, communicate their wants and needs, interact effectively with other people, and handle changes and adjustments better. The earlier the intervention, the more your child can benefit from the treatment.

FAQs

  • What does Level 1 Autism look like?

Level 1 Autism is regarded as ‘high-functioning’ Autism, or the least severe level on the Autism spectrum. Children with Level 1 Autism do not usually have language delays, but they may have trouble saying the right thing at the right time, or understanding non-verbal cues like gestures or body language.

  • What should you not do with a child that has Autism?

It is critical for parents or caregivers of a child with Autism to not take their behaviors personally. If the child walks away from you while you are speaking to them, or has a meltdown in public, remember that they process things differently from how neurotypical children might. Exercise patience.

  • What are the 3 core deficits of Autism?

Autism belongs to a category of neurodevelopmental conditions known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs). The core deficits that PDDs are characterized by include impaired reciprocal social interaction, impaired communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.

The diagnosis of Autism usually involves observations on the child’s behavior and developmental history, as well as certain screening tests. Since there is no single medical test for Autism, it often involves ruling out other conditions that may be behind the Autism symptoms in toddlers.

  • Can a child show signs of Autism and not have it?

Sometimes, it may happen that a child displays behavior consistent with Autism symptoms in toddlers, but then these symptoms go away. This simply means that the child is reaching some developmental milestones later than usual. Parents need not worry, as every child is different and grows at their own pace.

  • What happens if Autism is not treated?

If children do not receive intervention for Autism at the right age, they will continue to struggle with social interactions and may never develop the skills needed to communicate effectively. This could have adverse implications for their life as they grow up, including an inability to complete degrees or hold down jobs, and difficulty having relationships.

  • What are the negatives of Autism?

Children with Autism tend to have trouble forming and maintaining relationships with other people, both in professional settings and personally. They may experience social isolation as their symptoms make it hard for them to fit in. The stress of looking after a child with Autism, moreover, can cause strife within the family.

  • How can I help my Autistic toddler?

As a parent, the best way you can help your child navigate Autism symptoms in toddlers is by creating a safe, loving space for them at home. Be patient as you explain things to them and praise them for any and all efforts they make. In addition, pay special attention to any sensory processing issues and ensure you have ways for the child to be soothed if they have a sensory meltdown.

  • What are the common traits of Autism?

The typical symptoms of Autism in children include not wanting to be around other people, finding it difficult to express oneself, appearing rude without meaning to, not understanding non-verbal cues like gestures or expressions, and being uncomfortable in social situations.

  • Do Autistic kids have health issues?

Children with Autism can fall ill just like their neurotypical peers. In addition, there is some evidence to show that children with Autism are at a higher risk for certain health complications like asthma, allergies, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, and heart disease.

  • What does high-functioning Autism look like in toddlers?

The typical Autism symptoms in toddlers for those with the high-functioning variety include a reluctance to play with peers, a reluctance to share toys, and difficulty following instructions or doing things in a group. They will typically not have language delays, and may even have above-average verbal ability.

  • At what age do Autistic children talk?

One of the classic Autism symptoms in toddlers is a delay in speech and language skills. They may say their first word only at 36 months, whereas the average is between 12 and 18 months. However, children with high-functioning Autism may start talking at the same age as their neurotypical peers, or even earlier.

  • Do Autistic toddlers have sleep problems?

Studies indicate that between 40% and 80% of children with Autism exhibit sleep problems. This chiefly takes the form of difficulty falling and staying asleep or an irregular sleep schedule.

  • What causes speech delay in a two-year-old?

Speech delay is one of the common Autism symptoms in babies. However, it could also occur due to an oral impairment such as a cleft lip or a short frenulum, or some other condition like Cerebral Palsy.

In conclusion, spotting a few of the early signs of Autism in babies is not necessarily a cause for worry. However, for your own peace of mind, it is important to take your child for developmental check-ups as early as possible. This not only helps to rule out other health conditions the child may have but also ensures early intervention and treatment for Autism. You can be assured, therefore, of a healthy future for your toddler.

Dr Na'eem Sadiq is a respected stem cell specialist at Plexus, and a prominent neurologist in Bangalore. He studied neurology and clinical neurophysiology in London, and worked with some of the most prestigious medical institutions in England, and the Middle East. He completed his MBBS at Bellary Government Medical College, and a postgraduate degree in psychiatry from NIMHANS in Bangalore.

Dr Na'eem has perfected his knowledge and expertise in Continuing medical education (CME), and training in tissue culture, Stem Cell Therapy, and neurology. Dr Na'eem Sadiq possesses an undying passion to improve people’s lives. This led to the creation of Plexus, a neuro and Stem Cell Research centre in Bangalore in neurosurgery, and neurorehabilitation.