The signs of Autism in babies and toddlers

by Bryony Firth-Bernard |

Find out how you can spot the early signs and symptoms of autism in babies and toddlers, and what you can do to manage the condition.

Autism is a developmental condition that affects how children interact with others and the world around them. It is often diagnosed around aged four, so it is important to know the early signs to look for in babies and toddlers. Early intervention can drastically improve the outcome for the child and their family; the brain is more malleable at a young age, meaning it is more likely to respond to therapies which can alter the course of autism. Unfortunately, there is currently no medical test that can diagnose autism in children, so detecting autism relies on careful observations.

In the last 30 years, the number of children and adults who are diagnosed with autism has increased, largely thanks to an increased understanding of the symptoms. Traditionally, more boys are affected than girls, although it's thought this is because girls are underdiagnosed because they are better at masking symptoms.

"Your child could have difficulty with social communication, interaction and imagination."

Autism is a spectrum disorder. ‘This means that your child can have certain difficulties but to varying degrees,’ says Dr Judith Flood, a clinical psychologist and director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre. ‘Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have other learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.’

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them. ‘This means your child could have difficulty with social communication, interaction and imagination,’ says Judith.

The condition is often associated with a need for rigidity and repetition. Your little one will want to control life through structure and routine.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Aspergers is part of the autism spectrum. ‘People with Asperger’s have similar problems to those with autism, but tend to be of average or above average intelligence and have fewer verbal problems,’ says Judith. ‘People with Asperger’s syndrome can find it harder to read the social signals that most of us take for granted such as gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice and struggle with social cues.’

What are the symptoms of autism in babies younger than 12 months?

Spotting the signs of autism can vary because every child is different. The early red flags you should be looking for include:

  • Your baby isn’t babbling yet: if, by 12 months, your baby is not making vowel and consonant combinations like “ba”, “da” and “gee”, this could be an early sign of autism.

  • Your baby isn’t pointing things out to you: whether this is to get your attention or show you what they want.

  • Your baby doesn’t show you objects: from looking back at early videos of children who have gone on to develop autism, experts have suggested that if your baby is not picking up objects to show you, this could be a red flag.

  • Your baby does not enjoy playing or interacting with others: whether this is with their peers at nursery, or with you when you try to engage them in play.

  • Your baby is repeating the same action over and over again: autism is often recognised by repetitive behaviours. Most developing babies will do this to a certain extent, for example repetitively spinning the wheels on a toy car, but if you notice your little one doing this a lot, it could be something to talk to your GP about.

  • Your baby avoids your eye contact/ doesn’t respond to their name: if your child is showing signs of struggling to communicate already, this could be an early sign of autism. Autistic children often do not have any hearing impairments, but have difficulties paying attention and understanding language, meaning they struggle to recognise their own name.

  • Your baby pays more attention to toys than people: this shouldn’t be confused with normal child development. All children will love playing with their toys, but if your child seems to spend more time interacting with objects than he does people, or plays with a small number of his toys repetitively, this could be an early sign of autism.

  • Your baby doesn’t imitate sounds: if your little one is struggling to imitate you as you clap your hands, this could be a sign to address.

What are the symptoms of autism in toddlers?

Some of the typical signs of autism in children between 18-24 months are:

  • Your toddler doesn’t want to be around other children

  • Your toddler struggles to share toys or interests with other children

  • Your toddler is overly aggressive

  • Your toddler has no interest in imaginative play such as dressing up

  • Your toddler appears to be losing their speech skills: approximately 20-50% of parents with autistic children report that their child lost some of their skills around 18 months of age.

Your little one may be obsessive about lining things up, collecting items or having a very strict personal routine. ‘Older children may struggle with jokes and the subtlety of sarcasm,’ says Judith. ‘However, children with autism will enjoy slapstick and obvious humour.’

Another key issue that children with autism suffer from is sensory sensitivity. ‘Your toddler may hate loud noises or not enjoy being touched, or even cuddled, which can be heartbreaking for many mums,’ says Judith.

"Your little one may be obsessive about lining things up, collecting items or having a very strict personal routine"

It’s worth noting: just because your little one displays some of these behaviours, doesn’t mean they are autistic. Autism is diagnosed when a child displays a number of symptoms, that disrupt their ability to communicate and form relationships with those around them.

Are some children more likely to show signs of autism?

Experts have always known that children with autistic children are more likely to develop the disorder. In 2011, studies suggested siblings had nearly a 19% risk of being diagnosed with the condition by age three.

Are there medical tests for autism?

The only way to diagnose autism is by taking a full development history. ‘There are no biological markers, brain scan or blood test that can pick up the condition,’ says Judith. ‘However, a successful and speedy diagnosis is reliant on you or your partner picking up on problems with your toddler or child, and your GP to recognise symptoms and provide the right referral.’

Mums often admit that they can tell from quite early on that their little one is different, so it’s important to bring it up with your GP if you’re worried.

‘Once your toddler or child is referred – hopefully to a child development centre – he’ll have his development history taken and receive a full assessment from a speech and language specialist, psychologist and physiotherapist,’ says Judth.

What do I do if the referral is delayed?

The road to getting that all important ASD diagnosis can be difficult. If you feel like your child is displaying symptoms, and are experiencing a delay in the clinical diagnosis, make the first steps to getting treatment. Intervention during the preschool years will improve your child’s chances of overcoming the developmental delays that are characteristic of autism.

What is the treatment for autism?

There is no one specific method of treating your child if he has autism as it depends on each individual case. ‘However, many autistic children respond best when brought up in a structured environment where they can play to their strengths and have their weaknesses supported,’ says Judith.

The types of treatment vary based on your child’s needs. Early intervention will usually focus on the various aspects of your child’s development and can include:

  • Communication skills: helping your child communicate with those around them, as language skills are usually significantly delayed.

  • Social interaction skills: helping your child to understand other people’s feelings.

  • Imaginative play skills

  • Academic skills: to help your child gain the traditional skills they need, in support of what they are learning at nursery or school, such as reading and writing.

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