Skip to main content

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

Which toddler behaviors are quirky and which are red flags for autism?

Toddler drinking from a sippy cup while the parents hold it.
Africa Studio / Shutterstock

Autism spectrum disorder is very common — about one in 44 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Learning that your child is on the spectrum is upsetting, but early intervention following a diagnosis is vital. The early signs of autism in toddlers though can be easy to overlook. If you have a child that you think might be on the spectrum, it’s best to know what the early signs are as your toddler develops.

There is a long list of possible signs as the autism spectrum is wide and diverse. One sign may appear in one child, but not in another. Certain early signs of autism are more common than others, which is why knowing the red flags is important. The earlier a child receives a diagnosis, the better the support system will be for them.

Toddler pulling their hair
Westend61 / Getty Images

Understanding autism

Autism is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a “developmental disability” characterized by “differences in the brain.” This neurodevelopmental disorder typically shows up in the toddler stage and is lifelong. People with autism spectrum disorder or ASD often struggle with social interactions and communication, along with behavioral challenges.

Kids with ASD also learn differently than their peers. Adults and children with autism have varying levels of ability, which makes understanding ASD difficult. Some may be nonverbal, while others are able to communicate easily. Others may require daily care and assistance with everyday tasks, while some do not. As children with ASD grow, the symptoms and obstacles may change.

Diagnosing autism is a challenge for doctors. Since there isn’t one specific cause for autism spectrum disorder, diagnosing it isn’t as simple as taking an x-ray to see if a bone is fractured. Pediatricians make a possible diagnosis of autism based on a child’s outward behavior and development. A pediatrician will typically refer a child to a specialist if the diagnosis is suspected. Some toddlers are diagnosed as early as 18 months, while parents may not learn their child has ASD until he or she is a tween or older. Early intervention for autism spectrum disorder is key, which is why recognizing the early signs in toddlers is important.

toddler boys playing a party game
Inara Prusakova / Shutterstock

Early signs of autism in toddlers

As parents, we wait for those exciting milestones of development in toddlers. Of course, everything they do is adorable, but some things, as well as the absence of certain achievements, may be red flags for autism in toddlers. If do you notice one or two in your tot, it doesn’t automatically mean they are autistic. Here are some of the early signs of autism in toddlers to be aware of and to bring to the attention of your pediatrician.

Common signs of autism to look out for

Just like people with autism spectrum disorders are very different, so are the symptoms. This is why diagnosing a child with ASD now requires several steps. Here are the most prevalent signs.

  • Makes little or no eye contact or doesn’t keep eye contact.
  • Has difficulty with change or transition from one activity to another.
  • Finds comfort in routines.
  • May be obsessed with a few specific activities, doing them repeatedly every day.
  • Repeats exactly what others say without understanding the meaning.
  • Rocks or walks on their toes for a long time, or flaps their hands.
happy toddler boy reading a picture book
Africa Studio / Shutterstock

Signs of autism by age group

The toddler stage begins following your child’s first birthday. While every child develops at his or her own pace, there are certain developmental milestones doctors are on the lookout for. This is why when you bring your child to the pediatrician for wellness visits at nine, 18, 24, and 30 months, a developmental screening is conducted. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an autism screening be conducted on patients at 18 and 24 months. Here are early signs of autism in toddlers broken down according to age group.

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 of autism in a toddler. 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 red flag.

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 as well.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a child with autism who is 18 months old might only say words they have just heard or only repeat what they hear 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 states a child with autism who is 24 months old might bring you something to play with, but they don’t look at your face when they bring it to you. The child does not show signs of pleasure when playing with you.

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, it’s important to take note. 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. A toddler might not engage in any pretend play, such as taking care of a baby doll or disliking taking part in games involving taking turns.

Toddlers having fun playing on the floor
veryulissa / Shutterstock

Risks factors for autism spectrum disorder

While there is still a great deal doctors and scientists do not understand about autism, there are risk factors involved when it comes to early signs of ASD in toddlers. There isn’t just a single cause which determines whether or not a child is autistic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that there are certain components which may put children at risk for ASD. Those factors could be biological, genetic, or environmental. According to the CDC, research has shown some determinants may put a child in a higher risk category for autism.

Having a brother or sister with autism spectrum disorder or older parents are two risk factors for developing autism. Experiencing complications at birth is also another indicator which puts a child a risk for autism. Children with genetic disorders such as Fragile X syndrome fall into a higher risk category since one in three people with the syndrome are also autistic.

A dad playing with his toddler.
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

When to consult your doctor

Autism is more and more common these days as we understand more about it. Remember though 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 early sign of autism in your toddler. Your pediatrician will conduct autism screenings as a part of your child’s well visit, but always consult your doctor if you suspect that your child might be on the spectrum. Then, a more thorough evaluation can be made.

As a parent, 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 ASD. 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. The main reason to pay attention to the early signs of autism in toddlers is to get intervention as soon as possible.

Editors' Recommendations

Sarah Prager
Sarah is a writer and mom who lives in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National…
When do babies start walking? This is what you should expect
This is when you should have the house baby-proofed
Toddler boy walking around

We bribe. We beg. We will set that baby up for those first steps any way we can. But your little one will not start walking before they're ready. When is that? When do babies start walking? It's the next major milestone after crawling, and parents cannot wait to capture the moment their baby discovers they have two feet that will take them anywhere. If you have a baby who's about to become a walker, this is what you should expect before the first step is attempted.
Look for clues to tell when your baby will start walking

First things first — there are markers to watch out for to know your baby is about to walk. If you keep an eye on that little human of yours, they give hints as to when they're ready to start walking. By then, you can obsessively watch them so you don't miss a step.
Your baby will hit these milestones when it's almost time to walk

Read more
Why positive reinforcement needs to be in your parenting toolkit
Have these positive reinforcement examples in your wheelhouse
Parents teaching their daughter how to ride a bike with training wheels

Positive reinforcement is not a new concept of behavioral modification. Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner introduced the concept in the 1930s through a series of experiments. Educators are familiar with positive reinforcement since it is frequently used in the classroom to help students experiencing behavioral issues. The idea is to reward children for positive behaviors like sharing, following directions, and completing work on time, while eliminating troublesome behaviors, such as hitting, spitting, and not following directions.

This concept isn't just for the classroom, though. Gentle or positive parenting uses positive reinforcement to encourage children to make better choices and learn from their mistakes. If you're looking to help your children make better choices, rewarding them for positive behaviors is a great way to do it. Let's take a look a positive reinforcement examples to understand how this behavioral modification works and the benefits of adding it to your parenting toolbox.
What are the benefits of positive reinforcement?

Read more
How to help a crying child: Our top tips for sensitive kids
Learn ways to teach highly sensitive children how to manage emotions
A crying toddler holding an ice cream cone

We've all heard the expression about there not being a point in crying over spilled milk, but as parents, we know kids do. Children cry over a lot more than a spilled drink, especially when youngsters are toddlers and don't have the words to express what they're feeling. Many parents, however, deal with a crying child multiple times a day.

If your little one tends to get upset over relatively minor things, you're not alone. Lots of kids get upset when things don't go the way they want, but for some, it seems like the tears flow freely and quite often. Perhaps it's not that a crying child is being overly dramatic. It just might be that your child is highly sensitive.
Is your crying child highly sensitive?

Read more