Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show developmental differences when they are babies—especially in their social and language skills. Because they usually sit, crawl, and walk on time, less obvious differences in the development of body gestures, pretend play, and social language often go unnoticed.
In addition to language delays and behavioral differences, families may notice differences in the way their child interacts with peers.
Recognizing the Signs of Autism
Here are some examples of social, communication, and behavioral differences in children with autism.
Keep in mind: one child with ASD
will not have exactly the same symptoms as another child with ASD. The number and severity of symptoms can vary
Social Differences in Children with Autism
Doesn't keep eye contact or makes very little eye contact
Doesn't respond to a parent's smile or other facial expressions
Doesn't look at objects or events a parent is looking at or pointing to
Doesn't point to objects or events to get a parent to look at them
Doesn't bring objects of personal interest to show to a parent
Doesn't often have appropriate facial expressions
Unable to perceive what others might be thinking or feeling by looking at their facial expressions
Doesn't show concern (empathy) for others
Unable to make friends or is uninterested in making friends
Communication Differences in Children with Autism
Doesn't point at things to show needs or share things with others
Doesn't say single words by 16 months of age
Repeats exactly what others say without understanding the meaning (often called parroting or echoing)
Doesn't respond to name being called but does respond to other sounds (like a car horn or a cat's meow)
Refers to self as "you" and others as "I," and may mix up pronouns
Often doesn't seem to want to communicate
Doesn't start or can't continue a conversation
Doesn't use toys or other objects to represent people or real life in pretend play
May have a good rote memory, especially for numbers, letters, songs, TV jingles, or a specific topic
May lose language or other social milestones, usually between the ages of 15 and 24 months (often called regression)
Behavioral Differences (Repetitive & Obsessive Behaviors) in Children with Autism
Rocks, spins, sways, twirls fingers, walks on toes for a long time, or flaps hands (called "stereotypic behavior")
Likes routines, order, and rituals; has difficulty with change or transition from one activity to another
Obsessed with a few or unusual activities, doing them repeatedly during the day
Plays with parts of toys instead of the whole toy (e.g., spinning the wheels of a toy truck)
Doesn't seem to feel pain
May be very sensitive or not sensitive at all to smells, sounds, lights, textures, and touch
Unusual use of vision or gaze—looks at objects from unusual angles
How to Distinguish a Child with Autism from Other Typically-Developing Children:
Here are some examples that may help a parent tell the difference between normal, age-appropriate behavior and early signs of ASD.
When Not to Worry About Autism.
At 12 Months
A child with typical development will turn his head when he hears his name.
A child with ASD might not turn to look, even after his name is repeated several times, but will respond to other sounds.
At 18 Months
A child with delayed speech skills will point, gesture, or use facial expressions to make up for her lack of talking.
A child with ASD might make no attempt to compensate for delayed speech or might limit speech to echoing what is heard on TV or what she just heard.
At 24 Months
A child with typical development brings a picture to show his mother and shares his joy from it with her.
A child with ASD might bring her a bottle of bubbles to open, but he does not look at his mom's face when she does or share in the pleasure of playing together.