Although Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be diagnosed at any age, it is considered a developmental disorder because signs of autism in toddlers at age 2 are already generally noticeable.
The earlier you can spot the most common symptoms, the quicker you can intervene. Early intervention is one of the most important things that can improve your child’s quality of life and the supports you receive from medical institutions.
Also, importantly, bear in mind it can take months or years to get a formal diagnosis in some regions of the world. So the earlier you seek expert help, the more likely it is that you’ll achieve better outcomes for your child. And that is the most critical concern for all parents.
In this article, we’ll go over the most common signs and symptoms of autism in the early years of life. Use this resource to educate yourself on the matter, so you may be in a position to spot any irregularities in your child, and act accordingly.
How is Autism Diagnosed?
Doctors and ASD specialists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the fifth version of which was published in 2013, as the standard by which autism is diagnosed. The DSM-5 criteria allow the evaluator to assign one of three severity levels:
- Level 1: Requiring support
- Level 2: Requiring substantial support
- Level 3: Requiring very substantial support
Generally, the higher the level, the more social impairment is noticed by the specialist conducting the evaluation.
At Level 3, children exhibit severe deficits in verbal and non-verbal social and communication skills, inflexible behaviour, and extreme difficulty in coping with change.
At the lower levels, symptoms of mild autism in 2 year old children may be difficult for parents to notice, which is why it is so vital that you educate yourself on how to spot them.
For a more in-depth description of the DSM-5 guidelines and levels, please visit Autism Speaks’ page on the topic.
Despite the DSM-5 guidelines, there is no universal toddler autism test that is used by all professionals to assess the condition.
Several other rating scales, checklists, and questionnaires exist that can help assess a child’s behaviour and development to formulate a diagnosis and determine the autism severity.
They are used by scientists and clinicians around the world, depending on the purpose of the assessment and the clinician’s preference.
Common Tools to Diagnose Autism
- CARS (Childhood Autism Rating Scale)
- ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule)
- ADI-R (Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised)
- ATEC (Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist)
- GARS-2 (Gilliam Autism Rating Scale, 2nd Edition)
- ABC (Autism Behaviour Checklist)
If your child is not meeting their developmental milestones, your doctor may refer you to a specialist who may use one of the above methodologies (or similar ones) to formally diagnose your child.
Specialists you’re referred to may include pediatricians specializing in child development, neurodevelopment specialists, child psychologists, or others whose focus is conditions related to communication impairments.
The experts you see will depend greatly on what region of the world you live in, the supports and professionals available in your area, and the experts to whom you’re referred by your doctor.
But you should not necessarily wait until your child misses a developmental milestone to start thinking about seeing a specialist. As mentioned already, intervening as early as possible is extremely important to ensure your family gets the supports you need to help you navigate this journey.
Signs of Autism
You cannot identify an issue unless you know what to look for in the first place. That’s why it is important for you to be aware of the signs and symptoms of autism at various ages and stages of a child’s life.
Of course, because every child is so unique, autism symptoms are highly variable, which makes it challenging to detect early in life without proper training.
However, there are some common threads that run through this heterogeneous condition:
- Difficulties in communication and interaction with others.
- Restricted interests.
- Repetitive behaviours.
If you have observed any manifestation of the above in your child, it is already a clue that you need to look into their behaviour in more detail to spot any further signs.
It is often the case that more pronounced signs begin to appear as your child’s social demands increase. For example, when they start going to a creche or meet other kids their age, you may find that it is more difficult for them to make friends with their peers.
Autism symptoms checklist
Use the below list of signs of autism at various ages to examine your child’s behaviour patterns and determine whether referring to a specialist may be wise. The more signs you observe, the higher the likelihood that your child may be on the autistic spectrum.
Signs of Autism in 1 Year Old
Common signs of autism at age 1 include:
- Absence of babbling or use of gestures by 1 year.
- No gesturing, such as pointing to objects of interest.
- Limited or no social interaction.
- Poor eye contact (e.g. your child may not follow your gaze).
- Not responding to their name.
- Not responding to sounds or voices.
- Unusual attachment to one toy or object.
- No social smiling by 6 months.
- Loss of previously gained skills.
Signs of Autism in 2 Year Old
Typical signs of autism in toddlers age 2 include:
- Failure to reach developmental milestones.
- Not saying single words by 16 months.
- Absence of use of purposeful two-word phrases by 2 years.
- Reduced a variety of sounds, words, and gestures used to communicate.
- Difficulty expressing their wants or needs.
- Loss of language or social skills (called regression).
- If your child is non-verbal, it is a big clue.
- Little or no eye contact with others.
- Unusual attachment to one toy or object. May play with it for extended periods of time.
- Delay in the appearance of social smile or laughter.
- Delay in the appearance of stranger anxiety.
Signs of Autism in 3 Year Old
Signs of autism in toddlers age 3 are, in many ways, similar to those at two years of age. However, because of your child’s communication skills at this age should be more developed, you may notice more difficulties or irregularities around social interactions. Common signs to look out for include:
- Difficulty in interacting with others.
- Difficulty making friends with kids their age.
- Little or no eye contact.
- Ignoring their own name when you call them.
- Ignoring you when you talk to them.
- Reduced variety of words and phrases used to communicate
- Difficulty expressing themselves or their wants to needs.
- Loss of language or social skills (regression).
- Insisting on the same routines and way of doing things.
- Poor skills in pretend play and imitation.
- May not enjoy cuddling or affection.
- Inappropriate laughing.
- May have little or no fear of dangerous situations.
- Flapping hands.
- May like to spin objects or themselves.
- May echo words parents have said (also known as echolalia).
- Irregularities when playing with their toys, such as playing with one toy for lengthy periods of time.
- Eating non-food items such as paper, sand, hair, or other objects (also known as pica).
Related Article: Best Diet For Autistic Children
It’s important to note that just because your child exhibits one or more of the above signs, it does not necessarily mean they are autistic.
Many children miss developmental milestones but catch up later on. Every child develops at their own speed, and we need to be aware of that before we jump to conclusions.
Many children may also have behavioural traits that autistic children also have, so it’s important to take your child’s character and personality into account when you notice the above signs of autism.
Some kids are simply more shy or introverted than others. They have their favorite toys and like to play with them alone without always seeking the raucous company of other kids or family members.
With this caveat in mind, as a general guideline, the more of the above signs you notice in your child, the more likely it is that you should consult your doctor or another specialist for their professional opinion.
Please note that if your child shows a sudden regression of language or other skills, you should not ignore the problem and immediately see your pediatrician.
Likewise, if you notice the sudden emergence of new or severe symptoms, it’s best to err on the side of caution and see a professional as soon as possible.
There are many conditions that are co-morbid with autism, so it is important to either rule them out or identify them early on to ensure the best possible quality of life for your child.
We hope our article on Signs of Autism in Toddlers Age 2 and other ages was helpful to you. Being aware of the early signs of autism is extremely important for parents nowadays due to the growing incidence of ASD around the world.
By equipping yourself with the knowledge to spot potential signs, you are doing a tremendous service to your child and family.
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. (2013). American Psychiatric Association: Washington, DC.
- Filipek, P. A., Accardo, P. J., Ashwal, S., Baranek, G. T., Cook, E. H., Dawson, G., … Volkmar, F. R. (2000). Practice parameter: Screening and diagnosis of autism: Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society. Neurology, 55(4), 468–479. doi:10.1212/wnl.55.4.468
- Christopher, G. L. (2018). Cardinal Signs of Autism. Molecular Biology, 07(03). doi:10.4172/2168-9547.1000212
Related Article: How to Discipline Autistic Child for Hitting
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