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Spotting Early Signs of Autism in Toddlers: A Guide

Jun 5, 2024

Did you know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates autism affects 1 in 36 children today? (Maenner et al., 2023) Yes, it's that common. And while we often talk about early detection and intervention, understanding the signs of autism in toddlers can sometimes feel like trying to read a map without a compass.

Toddlers are naturally quirky. Their exploration of the world around them is uniquely theirs, guided by curiosity and wonder. But when does 'quirky' signal something more? Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) manifests through various signs that many parents might overlook as just part of growing up.

Suddenly, your little one isn't making eye contact like they used to. Or perhaps those baby babbles haven't evolved into two-word phrases as expected. It's confusing, right?

We're here not just to guide but to illuminate this path with concrete examples and explanations that make sense. After all, recognizing these signs is crucial for any parent or caregiver.

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Table of Contents

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a complex neurological and developmental disorder. It affects social skills like playing, learning, and communicating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that autism affects 1 in 36 children today, and it's four times as likely to impact boys than girls.

Defining Autism

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder. It affects how people communicate and interact with others, as well as how they behave and learn.

Autism, characterized as a spectrum disorder, accompanies individuals throughout their entire existence. Autism symptoms and signs can first appear when a child is very young.

Causes of Autism

The exact cause of ASD is unknown. Autism's origins are intricate, intertwining genetics and the environment in ways we're still striving to comprehend. While there's no fix for autism, a mix of treatments and support networks can significantly enhance the lives and symptom management of those living with ASD.

Identifying Early Signs of Autism in Infants

As many as one-third of autistic children lose skills after infancy and before preschool. Around 94 percent of the time, it's language skills that are lost (Backer, 2015).

If your baby babbled, made eye contact, gestured, and displayed other social behaviors and stopped doing so as a toddler, it's something to discuss with your pediatrician.

Signs in Newborns (0-3 months)

Photo by Freepik

Possible early signs of autism in newborns include:

  • Not following moving objects with their eyes
  • Sensitivity to loud noises
  • Limited facial expression
  • Poor facial recognition (especially new faces)

Signs in Babies (4-7 months)

Photo by Freepik

Possible signs of autism in babies aged 4 to 7 months include:

  • Showing disinterest in certain sounds (such as not turning to locate where sounds are coming from)
  • Perceived lack of affection
  • Limited verbal expression (like not laughing or making squealing sounds)
  • Not grasping or holding onto objects
  • Demonstrating limited facial expressions and/or emotional reactivity (such as not smiling on their own)

Signs in Babies (8-12 months)

Photo by Freepik

Possible signs of autism in older babies aged 8 to 12 months include:

  • Limited babbling
  • Not reaching for objects

"They're simply things we look for to determine if we need to further assess the baby," says Mandi Silverman, an associate psychologist at Positive Developments. Additionally, another social or developmental factor may be at play in addition to or rather than autism.

Recognizing Autism Symptoms in Toddlers

Autism symptoms in toddlers can be tough to spot. But there are telltale signs that something's up. Keep an eye out for challenges with social communication, like not responding to their name or avoiding eye contact.

Social Communication Challenges

Toddlers with autism often struggle with social skills. They might not smile back at you or show interest in playing with others. Joint attention is another biggie. That's the ability to share focus on an object or activity with someone else. Autistic toddlers often have trouble with this.

Behavioral Symptoms

Autism can also show up in behavior. Repetitive movements like hand flapping or rocking are common. Toddlers with autism might get super upset by certain sounds, smells, or textures. Kids with autism might really dive deep into specific hobbies or have a hard time switching up their daily habits.

Language Delays & Differences

Language is another area where autism symptoms pop up. Autistic toddlers might not babble or talk as much as their peers. When they do speak, it might sound different - like repeating phrases or having an unusual tone. Pretend play may be limited too. Bottom line? Trust your gut. If you're seeing signs that don't seem quite right, talk to your pediatrician. Getting help early on can significantly alter the course for the better.

The Role of Joint Attention in Autism

Joint attention serves as a pivotal developmental landmark, profoundly influencing the recognition and comprehension of autism spectrum disorder. It's the shared focus of two individuals on an object, person, or event. Kids on the autism spectrum frequently find it challenging to engage in mutual attention, hindering their ability to communicate and connect socially.

Understanding Joint Attention

Joint attention involves sharing attention with another person and understanding that both of you are focused on the same thing. It's a fundamental building block for social interaction, language development, and learning.

There are two types of joint attention:

  • Responding to joint attention (RJA): Following someone else's gaze or pointing to share attention
  • Initiating joint attention (IJA): Using eye contact, pointing, or other gestures to direct someone's attention to an object or event

Stages of Joint Attention Development

Joint attention skills typically develop in stages:

  1. Sharing attention (around 9 months): Infants begin to follow their caregiver's gaze and pointing
  2. Following attention and directing attention (9-18 months): Children start to use gestures like pointing to guide others' attention
  3. Using attention to communicate (18-24 months): Toddlers combine joint attention with language to interact and share experiences

Studies show
that infants later diagnosed with autism display declining attention to eyes between 2-6 months of age, which may impact joint attention development.

Navigating an Autism Diagnosis

Getting an autism diagnosis can be overwhelming. But it's the first step to getting your child the support they need. At what point is it advisable to pursue a consultation with a healthcare professional? According to the Child Mind Institute, some children show signs of autism spectrum disorder in early infancy, such as reduced eye contact, lack of response to their name or indifference to caregivers. Others develop normally at first, but then show signs of regression with motor movement or language skills.

When to Seek Medical Advice

These signs usually appear by age 2. If you notice any red flags, don't wait. Talk to your pediatrician right away.

Handling an Autism Diagnosis

If your child is diagnosed with autism, remember: you're not alone. There's a whole community ready to support you. The most important thing is to educate yourself. Dive into exploring the various healing methods and therapeutic options at your disposal. Work with your child's doctor to create a personalized plan.

Autism Treatments and Therapies

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to autism treatment. But common therapies include:

The goal is to help your child develop communication, social, and life skills. Given the appropriate backing, your youngster has the potential to flourish remarkably.

Debunking Autism Myths

There's a lot of misinformation out there about autism. Let's set the record straight.

Behaviors That Don't Necessarily Indicate Autism

Just because a child loses skills they previously had doesn't automatically mean they have autism. In fact, one-third of autistic children lose skills after infancy. If your baby stopped making eye contact, babbling, or gesturing as a toddler, talk to your pediatrician. Sometimes, it might signify autism or a different growth challenge.

Other behaviors that don't necessarily equal autism? Not responding to their name, avoiding eye contact, getting upset over tastes/smells/sounds, repetitive movements like hand flapping or rocking, not talking or pretending as much as other kids, or repeating phrases.

No Link Between Vacines and Autism

I need to be crystal clear here: Vaccines do NOT cause autism. That myth comes from a discredited and retracted study. Numerous studies since have found no link whatsoever between vaccines and autism.

Ensuring your kid gets their shots is key to safeguarding not just their well-being but also that of those around them. Deciding to bypass vaccinations doesn't shield your child from autism; rather, it exposes them to a host of perilous illnesses. Trust the science, not the myths.

FAQs in Relation to Signs of Autism in Toddlers

What are the 3 main symptoms of autism in toddlers?

The big three are social challenges, nonverbal and verbal communication hurdles, and repetitive behaviors. Each child's experience varies.

What does mild autism look like in a 2 year old?

Mild autism might show up as slight difficulties with social interactions or subtle repetitive actions. Every toddler is different.

How does a child with autism behave?

Kids with autism often struggle to communicate, interact socially, and may have specific routines or sensitivities they stick to closely.

What are the red flags for autism in a 2 year old?

Limited eye contact, not responding to their name by 12 months, or not pointing at objects to show interest could be warning signs.


Embarking on this voyage, we've navigated the complex realm of identifying early autism indicators in young children. It's a landscape filled with nuances, where each step can either lead to clarity or more questions. However, this endeavor isn't akin to making casual observations from a cozy seat; rather, it's about fully grasping and cherishing the distinct manner in which our young children perceive their world.

Yes, toddlers are quirky beings exploring life in full color. Yet amidst their quirks lie subtle cues - early signs that whisper rather than shout for attention. These aren't just toddler traits but could be markers on the spectrum path.

We unpacked these signals together because knowledge is power – power that transforms confusion into action, worry into support. Whether it was social communication challenges or language delays you were curious about; now you have insights sharper than before.

This isn’t fear-mongering nor an invitation to paranoia; instead, think of it as equipping yourself with a flashlight in a dimly lit room. Recognizing signs of autism in toddlers doesn't mean labeling them—it means empowering them by understanding their world better and providing help tailored to lighting up their paths brighter than ever before.

We’ve laid out facts over myths because every child deserves advocacy rooted in truth and love—no scare tactics needed here! And although Hollywood loves its dystopian tales with AI villains at the helm—here’s your plot twist: awareness and early intervention can script happier narratives for our kids.

You're not alone on this voyage—communities abound online and offline ready to lend ears and hands alike! So yes, dive in with confidence knowing there's a whole network of support waiting to help you navigate through. Let's make this journey together!

Jun 5, 2024

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