Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), impacts as many as 1 in every 54 children in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Main indicators of autism are issues with social communication and interactions in conjunction with repetitive and specific behaviors.

As a spectrum disorder, ASD causes a range of impairment issues. While some people can perform many daily tasks and live independently, others may have a higher level of disability that interferes with daily functioning.

Signs of ASD can be recognized early on, even in babies, though they become more prevalent as a child enters toddlerhood. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that toddlers should be screened for autism specifically between 18 and 24 months. Children with ASD can also develop normally up until age 2 or 3 before symptoms start to appear.

While symptoms of autism can vary with age and severity, earlier diagnoses and treatments always result in better outcomes.

Autism can be successfully managed through therapies and early intervention methods. Targeted therapies can improve daily life functioning, communication, and social skills, bringing an enhanced quality of life to autistic individuals.

Spotting Autism

ASD is a spectrum disorder, which means that there are ranges of severity and therefore some variety in the symptoms. It is a complex neurological disorder that typically manifests in early childhood. Autism can significantly impair social interactions, communication, and completion of daily life tasks.

The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), reports that autism symptoms include:

  • Difficulties with social interaction, including initiating and maintaining conversations.
  • Issues sharing emotions, empathizing with others’ emotions, and shared attention.
  • Problems with nonverbal communication skills, such as making eye contact, tone and body language, and understanding these cues from others.
  • Trouble maintaining social relationships, understanding or relating to others, adjusting to social expectations, and participating in age-appropriate activities.

According to the standard diagnostic criteria, an individual must also show two of four additional symptoms in order to be diagnosed with ASD. These symptoms are:

  • Resistance to change, ritualistic patterns, and strict adherence to change.
  • Repetitive speech patterns, object usage, or movements.
  • Unusual attention to sensory input or aspects of the surrounding environment.
  • Intense focus on precise chosen interests.

There are specific signs of autism that vary based on developmental age, which can be used to spot the disorder as well.

Early Warning Signs of Autism

ASD signs are typically noticeable by age 2 or 3, but symptoms are often present earlier. While autism can be diagnosed as young as 18 months , it is more reliably diagnosed when a child is 2 years old.

The process from recognizing a potential issue to an autism diagnosis can be long and complicated. The earlier signs are identified, the sooner treatment can begin.

Early intervention is the key to cultivating overall functioning and developing coping skills for managing ASD. This early treatment improves long-term outlooks significantly. 

Some early signs of ASD include:

  • Little or no talking.
  • Speaking later than is developmentally expected.
  • Abnormal nonverbal communication skills, such as avoidance of eye contact, lack of facial expressions, or a monotone speaking style.
  • Not engaging in cooperative play with peers but instead focusing on parallel or solitary play.
  • Repetitive movements, words, or sounds.
  • Difficulties with change, especially altered schedules.
  • Extreme focus on a specific toy or interest.
  • Preference for structured play that is predictable as opposed to spontaneous.

Autism often co-occurs with other disorders as well. The presence of other disorders, such as gastrointestinal and sleep disorders, can raise the likelihood of autism. Parents of children with these disorders should be on heightened alert for the signs of ASD.

The CDC publishes a list of typical developmental milestones to help parents be aware that their children are on track. Knowledge of these milestones can help parents identify possible delays and disorders, such as ASD, more easily.

Recognizing Autism in Different Age Groups

ASD knows no socioeconomic, racial, or cultural boundaries. It impacts people from all demographics and backgrounds, though certain populations are at higher risk for the disorder. Autism spectrum disorder is over four times more common in boys than girls.

Today, more children have been diagnosed with autism than ever before. It is believed that better diagnostic tools and an improved understanding of autism are behind the higher number of diagnoses in the past two decades.

As a spectrum disorder, ASD signs and symptoms can vary based on age and the severity of the disorder. Below are some common things to look for based on age.

Babies

  • Lack of eye contact