Spotting Early Warning Signs of Autism in Children
Autism is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that can affect socialization and range in severity from person to person. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in 44 children is on the autistic spectrum today. While there is no explained cause for autism yet, experts generally believe that it results from environmental and genetic factors, such as premature birth, low birth weight, delivery complications, geriatric pregnancies, etc.
Developmental milestones in children
To be able to recognize the early warning signs of autism in children, it is important to know the important developmental milestones they need to achieve by a certain age. According to the CDC, these are the milestones that most children between the age of six months to four years tend to achieve:
By 6 months, children generally begin to respond to their own name, respond to people’s emotions, and often seem happy, copy sounds, and enjoy playing with others, especially their parents.
By the time children are 12 months old, they are generally able to use simple gestures such as shaking their head “no” or waving at others, saying simple words like “mama” and “dada,” playing games like peek-a-boo, and responding to simple spoken requests.
By the age of 18 months, most children can point at objects to show others something interesting, enjoy handing things to others as play, say several single words, and play simple pretend games such as feeding a doll.
When a child reaches 2 years of age, most children can say sentences with two to four words, follow simple instructions, get excited around other children, and point to things and pictures when they are named.
Three-year-old children generally can show affection for friends and family without prompting, carry on conversations using two to three sentences, copy adults and friends, and play make-believe with dolls, people, and animals (scenarios such as tea parties, doctor’s office, etc.)
By the age of four, children generally begin to start telling stories, prefer to play with their friends (instead of playing alone), and learn how to cooperate with other children.
Warning signs of autism in children
Based on the above developmental milestones, here are some early warning signs of autism to watch out for in children aged:
Not following moving objects or people with their eyes
Extremely sensitive to loud noises
Limited facial expressions
Poor facial recognition, especially with new faces
Disinterest in trying to locate where certain sounds are coming from (by trying to turn their head, for instance)
Limited verbal and facial expressions, for instance, not smiling, laughing, or squealing enough
Not reaching for, grasping, or holding onto objects
Not being able/wanting to crawl
Avoiding eye contact
Limited or incomprehensible speech
Not pointing to objects or pictures
Appearing unbalanced or unable to stand, even with support
Appear to ignore the parent’s voice, which can also lead to worries regarding their hearing abilities
Not exchanging any smiles, sounds, or gestures in a row with their parents
Avoiding using gestures such as shaking their heads or waving
Take their parents’ or guardians’ hand and lead them to the object, instead of pointing at it
Not using or understanding at least 10 words
Not engaging in any pretend play, such as feeding a doll or stuffed animal
By 24 months
Starts pointing at objects, not because they want their parents to look at them, but because they expect the adult to get it for them.
May gradually or suddenly stop using the imaginary language they developed
Appears more socially withdrawn
Engages in scripted speech, that is repeating a phrase or sentence they have heard elsewhere (such as a television program or movie), out of context
Repeating a “pop-up” word for several days or weeks with no intent of communication and then suddenly stopping using it
By 36 months
Not pretending to play different characters, or talking for dolls or action figures
Not using thoughts and actions in speech and play to communicate
Not talking about interests and feelings about the past or the future
Other early warning signs of autism
Children may display other signs of autism across ages; these are as follows:
Constant repetition of words or phrases, also called echolalia or parroting
Not exhibiting warm or joyful expressions
Lack of coordination of nonverbal communication
Excessive interest in particular toys, and/or lack of playing with a variety of toys
Experiencing abrupt shifts in emotional states
Difficulty in calming when distressed
Having restricted interests
Loss of previously acquired speech, babbling, or social skills
Indulging in repetitive behaviors, such as flapping, rocking, spinning, etc.
Avoiding eye contact
Preferring solitude, instead of interacting with peers
Resisting any changes in routine or surroundings
Difficulty in understanding other people’s feelings
Having an unusual or intense reaction to sounds, smells, textures, tastes, lights, or colors, or engaging in unusual sensory exploration
Delayed language development
Unusual patterns of intonation when speaking (also known as prosody)
It is best to consult a pediatrician if one begins to notice signs of autism in their child. All children with autism do not display the same warning signs at the same intensity, so it is advisable to keep a keen eye on the baby’s development progress. A discussion about the same with a doctor can help receive an evaluation for the condition.
Ideally, it is recommended to visit a pediatrician as soon as one begins to notice symptoms. An early diagnosis can help begin developmental and behavioral interventions. While there is no “cure” for autism, certain therapies can help children live a full and happy life. Depending on the child’s developmental progress, doctors may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, behavior management therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, nutritional therapy, educational interventions, chiropractic care, animal therapy, and/or art therapy.