Aidan, 6 years old, is a non-stop ball of energy with the sweetest heart a mom could ask for. Aidan was diagnosed with ASD at age 2.

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Early warning signs and symptoms of ASD/Autism

Early detection is key

Parents are in the best position to see the earliest warning signs and symptoms of ASD. You know your child better than anyone and observe behaviors and quirks that a pediatrician might not spot in a quick fifteen-minute visit. Though your pediatrician is an essential partner, don’t diminish the importance of your own observations and experience. Educate yourself so you know what’s typical and what isn’t.

Watch carefully ASD involves a variety of developmental delays. Keeping a close eye when your child should be hitting the key social, emotional, and cognitive milestones is a good way to spot a problem early on. While developmental delays don’t automatically point to ASD, they may indicate a higher risk.

Take action if you’re concerned

When it comes to healthy development, there’s a wide range of “normal.” But if your child is not meeting the milestones for his or her age, or you suspect a problem, share your concerns with your child’s doctor immediately. Don’t wait.

Don’t accept a wait-and-see approach

Many concerned parents are told, “Wait and see.” But waiting too long is the worst thing you can do as you risk losing valuable time at an age where your child has the best chance for improvement. In order to develop skills in an area of delay, your child might need extra help and targeted treatment.

Trust your instincts

Ideally your child’s doctor will take your concerns seriously and perform a thorough evaluation for ASD or other developmental delays. But sometimes even well-meaning doctors miss red flags or underestimate problems. Listen to your gut if it’s telling you something is wrong and be persistent. Schedule a follow-up appointment with the doctor, seek a second opinion, or ask for a referral to a child development specialist.

Regression of any kind is a serious ASD warning sign. Some children with ASD start to develop communication skills and then regress, usually between 12 and 24 months. Any loss of speech, babbling, gestures, or social skills should be taken very seriously, as regression is a major red flag for ASD.

Signs and symptoms of ASD in babies and toddlers

If ASD is caught in infancy, treatment can take full advantage of the young brain’s remarkable plasticity. Although ASD is hard to diagnose before 24 months, symptoms often surface between 12 and 18 months. If signs are detected by 18 months of age, intensive treatment may help to rewire the brain and reverse the symptoms. The earliest signs of ASD involve the absence of normal behaviors—not the presence of abnormal ones—so they can be tough to spot. In some cases, the earliest symptoms of ASD are even misinterpreted as signs of a “good baby,” since the infant may seem quiet, independent and undemanding. However, you can catch warning signs early if you know what to look for. Some ASD infants don’t respond to cuddling, reach out to be picked up, or look at their mothers when being fed.

See our resource section for more information on the early warning signs of ASD.

Early signs of autism in babies and toddlers

If your toddler doesn’t:

  • Make eye contact (e.g. when being fed)
  • Smile when smiled at
  • Respond to his or her name or to the sound of a familiar voice
  • Follow objects visually
  • Point or wave goodbye or use other gestures to communicate
  • Follow the gesture when you point things out
  • Make noises to get your attention
  • Initiate or respond to cuddling
  • Imitate your movements and facial expressions
  • Reach out to be picked up
  • Play with other people or share interest and enjoyment
  • Ask for help or make other basic requests

The following delays warrant an immediate evaluation by your child’s pediatrician.

  • By 6 months: No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions.
  • By 9 months: No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions.
  • By 12 months: Lack of response to name.
  • By 12 months: No babbling or “baby talk”
  • By 12 months: No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving.
  • By 16 months: No spoken words.
  • By 24 months: No meaningful two-word phrases that don’t involve imitating or repeating.

If autism is caught in infancy, treatment can take full advantage of the young brain’s remarkable plasticity. Although autism is hard to diagnose before 24 months, symptoms often surface between 12 and 18 months. If signs are detected by 18 months of age, intensive treatment may help to rewire the brain and reverse the symptoms.

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