Recognizing early signs of autism can lead to early intervention and long-term positive results.
Signs of Autism in Toddlers
In some kids, signs of autism are recognizable as early as infancy. Other kids may not show noticeable signs until they are toddlers, or even later. Not all kids share the same symptoms and behaviors. And kids without autism may demonstrate characteristics typical of autism. That’s why a diagnosis of autism often requires a professional evaluation. Here are a few behaviors you may notice in toddlers and young children who have autism. Remember, autism is a spectrum disorder. Signs and symptoms vary from person to person, and these behaviors can be more or less severe depending on the child.
- Has trouble communicating (e.g. asking for help, expressing wants and needs)
- Is less expressive through sounds, words, and gestures than other kids their age
- Doesn’t respond to their name
- Avoids making eye contact
- Has little interest in others
- Does not typically smile back or use other engaging expressions (e.g. pointing, waving)
- Has unusual playtime habits
- Does not like to play “pretend” with dolls and figurines
- Has sensory issues (e.g. has a strong reaction to certain sounds, textures, smells, etc.)
- Engages in repetitive movements (e.g. flapping hands, rocking body)
- Uses repetitive words or phrases
- Has difficulty with small changes in routine
- Has specific or obsessive interests
This list can be used as a starting point, however it is not all-encompassing. The CDC provides additional information about the signs of autism here. You can also visit Autism Speaks for age-specific signs of autism in toddlers.
The Importance of Early Intervention
A tremendous amount of brain development occurs in the first few years of life. During this time, the brain is extremely flexible and able to change, adapt, and form new pathways more easily. This is referred to as brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity. Essentially, it’s much easier for a toddler brain to change and learn new things. That doesn’t mean important change can’t happen later on. It just means that early intervention can give kids the best possible chance to reach their full potential.
Types of Support for Autism in Toddlers
Autism in toddlers affects kids and families in different ways. There are many types of interventions and systems of support for autism. Early intervention might include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, family training, behavioral intervention, and nutrition services. It may take some exploration before you find the right fit for your child and family. One helpful person you can start a conversation about early intervention with is your child’s pediatrician. Some public school districts also offer evaluations and early intervention services to pre-school aged children. Visit your school district website, or speak to the ESE contact at your child’s zoned school, for more information about school based resources.