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5 very early signs of autism in toddlers to be on the lookout for

Autism spectrum disorder is very common — about one in 44 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism, according to the CDC. Naturally, you might want to learn the early signs of autism so you can be keeping a lookout for any indication of the condition in your own child.

There is a long list of possible signs and the autism spectrum is wide and diverse, so one sign may appear in one child that wouldn’t appear in another. However, certain early signs of autism are more common than others. The earlier a child can receive a diagnosis and access appropriate services, the better the support and understanding he will receive. Spotting these signs as early as possible will help him immensely.

asian toddler

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism, is a very broad collection of neurodevelopmental conditions that present differently in each person. These conditions present as differences in behavioral, communicative, and social interactions.

People with autism may process the world differently and interact with the world differently than people who don’t have autism, but an autism diagnosis for your child doesn’t mean her life can no longer be full and happy. Connecting her with the proper early intervention services as soon as possible will help you both to realize that goal, so if you notice any of these signs, talk to your pediatrician right away.

5 early signs of autism in toddlers

Five of the most common signs of autism to look out for:

  1. Your toddler makes little or no eye contact or doesn’t keep eye contact.
  2. Your toddler has difficulty with change or transition from one activity to another; likes routines.
  3. Your toddler may be obsessed with a few specific activities, doing them repeatedly every day.
  4. Your toddler repeats exactly what others say without understanding the meaning.
  5. Your toddler rocks, walks on their toes for a long time, or flaps their hands.

Toddler with cake

Signs of autism in toddlers at age 1

The signs of autism can often first be recognized between 12 and 24 months. Not reacting to or engaging with a game like peek-a-boo can be a tell-tale sign.

At 12 months old, a child with autism might not turn to look when you call their name (even after you repeat it multiple times) but will respond to other sounds.

You might notice your 1-year-old not showing any (or little) reaction to your facial expressions or your smile when you are trying to get them to smile back. Similarly, if you regularly try to get them to look at an object by pointing or looking and they don’t, this can also be a sign of autism.

Signs of autism in toddlers at age 2

Socially, autistic 2-year-olds may not notice how others feel. Verbally, they might not speak any single words by 15 months or any two-word phrases by 24 months. If they regress in their language or social milestones between 15 and 24 months, that can also be a sign.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a child with autism who is 18 months old might only say words she has just heard or only repeats what she hears on TV. This is different than a child with delayed speech who tries to compensate for the delay with gestures, pointing, and facial expressions to get you to understand. A toddler with autism does not make those attempts.

The AAP also says a child with autism who is 24 months old might bring you something to play with, but does not look at your face when they bring it to you and does not share in the pleasure of playing together.

Signs of autism in toddlers at age 3

If your 3-year-old has trouble making friends, doesn’t understand making appropriate facial expressions, or doesn’t seem to cry if in pain, these are also all potential signs of autism spectrum disorder. They might play with one part of a toy instead of the whole toy, like just spinning the wheel of a toy truck, and they might not engage in pretend play, like taking care of a baby doll. They might also not take part in games that involve taking turns, like duck-duck-goose.

Watch for early signs of autism in toddlers

Autism is common, but it is also not uncommon for children to develop in their own unique ways and at their own pace. Don’t stress yourself out over every potential sign. Always consult your doctor if you suspect that your child might be on the spectrum, as they can do a thorough evaluation to make that determination.

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