The Early Signs of Autism

Toddler boy playing outside with bubbles


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD can experience a variety of challenges, including complications with social communication and interaction, repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, and the ability to learn or function in certain environments. Autism is often referred to as being a spectrum because of the broad range of severity and symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism affects an estimated 1 in 44 children in the United States.

What Causes Autism? 

Autism does not discriminate; meaning any gender, race, ethnicity, or socio-economic background is susceptible to being diagnosed with ASD. The primary causes of ASD are still unknown, however, researchers are led to believe that a person’s genes can change early development and lead to ASD. There are a few factors proven to increase the likelihood of developing autism – including low birth weight and premature birth, having older parents, having a sibling with ASD, and already having other genetic conditions. 

Early Signs of Autism

Spotting autism in a young child can be difficult at times, as the wide variety of symptoms and severity can be different for each child. Obtaining a professional evaluation is imperative to be on the safe side if you or a child’s doctor have concerns about areas of development related to social interaction, communication, and/or the presence of other behavior patterns. Some children may show signs of autism during infancy, while others develop normally for the first year or two and then regress suddenly or begin to have challenges. Most doctors will monitor for developmental delays during each well-visit and start a conversation with the parents if anything is suspected. Signs of delayed development are usually noticeable within the first 2 years of age. 

Signs of Autism in Infants

When assessing babies, it is essential to remember that development occurs at its own pace and milestones won’t always follow exact timelines. However, here are a few signs to look out for before your child reaches two years of age. 

  • Little to no eye contact
  • Inconsistency with responding to their name being called
  • Uses few to no gestures (no pointing, waving, reaching)
  • Does not show facial expressions (no smiles)
  • No baby talk 

Signs of Autism in Two-Year-Olds 

Once a child hits age two, there are several other signals to look out for. And because signs would most likely be prevalent by this age, if your child struggles to engage in functions from this list, it should raise some concern. These signs include:

  • Does not point or attempt to show you things they’re interested in 
  • Does not notice when others are hurt or upset
  • Very few to no words

Signs of Autism in Toddlers or Preschoolers 

Once a child hits the toddler stage, there are many actions they should be doing on a daily basis. Children between ages two and four should be regularly participating in actions listed in the previous lists, as well as, expanding play and social relationships. If they are still not reaching certain milestones, it’s time to express concern to your child’s pediatrician. Additional signs in this age range may include, not showing interest in playing with other children and not pretending to be something else during play.

Other Common Signs Prevalent at Any Age

There are some symptoms not necessarily associated with any specific age, however, they are very common in individuals with ASD and therefore should be monitored.

  • Preferring solitude most of the time
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Restricted interests
  • Repetition of words or phrases (echolalia)
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings
  • Low range of facial expressions (happy, sad, surprised)
  • Marked frustration with sudden change or deviating from a routine
  • Adverse reactions to sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and different textures (either “too much” or “too little” response to stimuli)
  • Participates in self-harming behaviors

How to Get My Child Tested for Autism

After expressing concerns with your child’s pediatrician, they will most likely suggest developmental tests to determine if your child has any delays. Delays in language, cognitive or social development don’t always warrant thoughts of autism. Many children experience delays in one area or another and are referred to a speech pathologist or other services. If your child’s doctor does suspect autism as a possible outcome, they will refer you over to a specialist in the field, such as a clinical psychologist or developmental pediatric neurologist for an evaluation.

Developmental screenings and questionnaires take an assessment to the next level once ASD is suspected. The results of these tools may lead to a more formal evaluation where a specialist takes an in-depth look at a child’s development. Results from the more formal evaluation will determine if the child meets the criteria for a diagnosis. With results of the evaluation depending on the child’s age, the specialist may recommend your child partake in early intervention services.

Here at Ally Behavior Centers, we have in-house licensed clinical psychologists on staff who have dedicated their careers to evaluating very young children for the presence of this disorder.


When in doubt, ask your child’s pediatrician for their opinion. There are many online resources such as the M-CHAT-R (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised) on the website, which is a quick screen with 20 questions to help you determine if your child may or may not have autism. The results can help notify you if your child needs further evaluation.