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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or autism, is present from infancy or early childhood, and can impact the development of skills such as talking, playing and interaction with others.
The earlier that a child is diagnosed with autism, the sooner they can get access to treatment that will make their condition easier to manage. Symptoms are often noticed at around 12-18 months and will present fairly uniquely for each child. Because of this, the most reliable way to determine if your child or toddler has autism is through an autism assessment.
If you are concerned that your child is showing symptoms of autism and are considering taking steps towards a diagnosis, here are 7 key signs of autism in young children and toddlers that you may notice.
As infants develop, there are a few signs of autism you may be able to start recognising at around 12 months old. One of the significant milestones for typical child development is responding to a given name. The child will often learn to turn their head when they hear their name. A child with ASD, however, might not turn to look, even after their name is repeated a number of times. Instead, you might find your infant responds or turns their head to other sounds and noises. If the recognition of their name isn’t clear, this can be an early sign of autism in young children.
Beginning to talk is another significant part of childhood development. Children will usually start to utter their first words between 12 and 15 months, however in children with autism, they may struggle to reach this milestone, experiencing a delay in developing language or being almost completely non-verbal. You may also find that a child who was developing their communication skills well begins to regress and completely lose them.
Of course, a child who isn’t showing typical speech development doesn’t necessarily have ASD. They may just be having a hard time with verbal communication. However, a child with delayed speech skills will use other, non-verbal, methods of communication in order to compensate for their lack of words. This might mean you see a lot of gestures, pointing or expressions while they try to get their point across. A child with ASD, on the other hand, may not try to compensate at all. If they do respond verbally, they might simply repeat what they just heard.
While children can generally be quite picky eaters, or appear to dislike certain sounds or smells, children with ASD can get very upset if they don’t like a certain sensory experience. If they are faced with dealing with too many overwhelming sensory stimulations, a child with ASD might experience sensory overload and display distressed behaviour.
They might prefer to eat a set of plain, “safe” foods, or struggle with the overpowering smell of a relative’s perfume. Children with typical development might also prefer bland foods or react strongly to specific scents, but they aren’t likely to display the same level of distress as a child with autism might.
Stimming, or repetitive movements, are another sign of autism in young children and toddlers. Stimming refers to “self-stimulating behaviour” and helps to regulate feelings like frustration and boredom – even working as a self-soothing technique. Common “stims” include rocking, jumping, hand flapping or repeating words and sounds.
So long as it’s not causing any injuries, repetitive movements are harmless, but they can be an indicator of ASD. Pay attention to when your child is engaging in these behaviours to see if there’s a specific trigger or correlation, as this might give you more insight into whether it’s just playing, or a sign of something more.
A sign of autism (sometimes more recognisable in older children) is a preference for a strict daily routine. Change can be quite difficult for a child with autism to cope with. Children with autism tend to like the reliability of a routine that they can trust. This also means that any change in routine can be overwhelming, no matter how small that change might feel to you.
Most children can get incredibly passionate about their favourite things, whether that’s a TV show, a book or even a toy. However, a child with autism will be passionate about one, maybe two, things often referred to as their special interests. A child with autism may appear obsessed with their special interest (for example, taking things apart), and this forms a lot of what they want to do and talk about if they are verbal.
As children develop, they develop a better understanding of other people: how to play with them, how to follow their conversations and how to empathise with others. For children with autism however, this can be a lot more difficult. A child with ASD can find it harder to follow the flow of a conversation, and can tend to not listen to other people. They may also have trouble empathising and predicting other people’s reactions to behaviour. If you’re noticing that your child is struggling with interpersonal skills, it might be a sign of autism.
Like a number of childhood disorders, autism can manifest differently in boys than it does in girls. For example, girls with autism may be quieter, hide their feelings, and appear to cope better with social situations by “masking”, whereas boys may appear more aggressive in their actions and react more vocally to things they like and dislike. No matter the gender of your child, there is always help at hand if you suspect they might be struggling with ASD or another disorder.
Autism covers an enormous spectrum, and each child will experience symptoms in their own way, sometimes making the condition difficult to diagnose. Many of the ‘common’ signs can simply be signs of your child developing individually – and as isolated behaviours, these are probably nothing to be concerned about.
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