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

If you think your child might be on the spectrum, here are 5 early signs of autism to look for

Autism spectrum disorder is very common — about one in 44 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism, according to the CDC. If you have a child you think might be on the spectrum, it’s best to learn the early signs of autism to keep a lookout for any indication of the condition.

There is a long list of possible signs as the autism spectrum is wide and diverse. 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 receives a diagnosis, the better the support system will be for them. Spotting these signs as early as possible will help.

A mother helping her toddler play with a wall activity.

What is autism?

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

People with autism may process and interact with the world in an unique manner than people without would never have thought of. An autism diagnosis for your child doesn’t mean that their life needs to be any different from the life their peers will live. Connecting 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 and local support groups.

A child playing with toys on the floor while her father sits on the couch watching.

5 early signs of autism in toddlers

These aren’t the only signs to look out for. And if you notice one or two in your tot, that doesn’t automatically mean they are autistic.

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

  1. Makes little or no eye contact or doesn’t keep eye contact.
  2. Has difficulty with change or transition from one activity to another; likes routines.
  3. May be obsessed with a few specific activities, doing them repeatedly every day.
  4. Repeats exactly what others say without understanding the meaning.
  5. Rocks, walks on their toes for a long time, or flaps their hands.
Two little children playing with toys at a table.

Signs of autism by age group

Signs in toddlers at age 1

The signs of autism are often first recognized between 12 and 24 months. Not reacting to or engaging in a game like peekaboo could be an initial sign.

At 12 months old, a child who could be autistic 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 at it yourself and they don’t, this could also be a sign.

Signs 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 could be an indicator.

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 they heard 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 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 when in pain, these are 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. They might not engage in any pretend play, like taking care of a baby doll. They might not like to take part in games that involve taking turns, like duck-duck-goose.

Autism is more and more common these days as we understand more about it. 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.

But live your life and let your child live theirs. Not every quirk or difference your child has compared to another kiddo is a sign of autism. Even if your mini human is autistic, there’s no longer the giant stigma that used to be attached to it. Thanks to the increasing support from groups on social media, it is easier than ever to find your tribe if your child is on the spectrum.

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