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 speech/language delays and behavioral differences, families may notice differences in the way their child interacts with peers and others.
Recognizing 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
May not keep eye contact or makes little or no eye contact
Shows no or less response to a parent's smile or other facial expressions
May not look at objects or events a parent is looking at or pointing to
May not point to objects or events to get a parent to look at them
Less likely to bring objects of personal interest to show to a parent
Many not have appropriate facial expressions
Has difficulty perceiving what others might be thinking or feeling by looking at their facial expressions
Less likely to show concern
(empathy) for others
Has difficulty making and keeping friends
Communication differences in children with autism
Less likely to point at things to indicate needs or share things with others
Says no single words by 15 months or 2-word phrases by 24 months
Repeats exactly what others say without understanding the meaning
(often called parroting or echoing)
May not respond to name being called but does respond to other sounds
(like a car horn or a cat's meow)
May refers to self as "you" and others as "I" and may mix up pronouns
May show no or less interest in communicating
Less likely to start or continue a conversation
Less likely to 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" or stereotypies)
Likes routines, order, and rituals; has difficulty with change or transition from one activity to another
May be 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)
May not cry if in pain or seem to have any fear
May be very sensitive or not sensitive at all to smells, sounds, lights, textures, and touch
May have 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. Also see
When Not to Worry About Autism.
At 12 Months
A child with typical development will turn their head when they hear their name.
A child with ASD might not turn to look, even after their 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 their lack of talking.
A child with ASD might make no attempt to compensate for delayed speech or might limit speech to repeating what they hear on TV or what they just heard.
At 24 Months
A child with typical development brings a picture to show their mother and shares their joy from it with her.
A child with ASD might bring their mom bottle of bubbles to open, but they do not look at her face when they do or share in the pleasure of playing together.