Early Intervention Is Key: Signs of Autism in Toddlers

Thank you to Wolfson Children's Hospital for sponsoring this post and providing early intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder.

autism in toddlersToddlers are curious by nature, and each day comes with a series of lessons and learning experiences — both for your little one and for you as a caregiver! It is so exciting to witness them develop, grow, and experience the world around them with wonder. Much like when they’re an infant, each new phase in your child’s life comes with meeting many physical and developmental milestones — and some parents may notice that their son or daughter is delayed in certain areas.

This is when some questions may arise: Could she be a late talker? Why isn’t he making more eye contact? How do I know if my child is on the spectrum?

Signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are grouped into two categories: social communication skills and behavioral differences.

Possible signs of autism by age

We all know that each child is different, and many children reach physical and cognitive milestones at various paces, most of which are within a normal range. But if you find yourself concerned or with questions, you should always speak with your pediatrician. Here are a few of the more common signs of an autism spectrum disorder that doctors look for, broken down by age.

  • 12 months: Displays limited eye contact and doesn’t look in your direction when you say his or her name.
  • 18 months: Makes very few facial expressions or has limited use of gestures such as pointing. Instead, a child with an ASD may cry or whine to express what they want or exhibit hand-leading (leading a parent by the hand to show them what he or she needs). Though the child may laugh or smiles, he or she makes limited eye contact.
  • 24 months: Minimal interactive play with other children and parents. The toddler may bring a toy to a caregiver to help open or fix it, but won’t make eye contact or play with others.

Early intervention is key

The younger a child is diagnosed and receives intervention, the better. A few of the earliest signs of a potential autism spectrum disorder include:

Social communication differences

  • Abnormally quiet or extra fussy temperament as a baby
  • Makes little to no eye contact
  • Doesn’t follow a parent’s finger or gaze
  • Doesn’t point
  • Sudden loss of previously developed language skills
  • Makes minimal facial expressions
  • Little or no expression in response to caregiver’s smile or other emotions
  • Difficulty noticing other people’s emotions or showing empathy
  • Difficulty making friends or preference of playing alone
  • Responds to sounds (but not his or her own name)
  • Good memory for numbers, songs, or TV shows
  • Repetition of sounds, words, or phrases said by others

Behavioral differences

  • Rocks, spins, or sways
  • Twirls fingers or flaps hands
  • Strong preference of routine, order, or rituals
  • Favors limited activities that are performed repeatedly
  • Plays with parts of a toy (like the wheel of a racecar) rather than the entire toy
  • Able to read words at an early age but doesn’t comprehend the material
  • Sensitivity (or lack thereof) to smells, sounds, textures, touch, or pain
  • Unusual or intense interest in specific activities or topics

Although many of these behaviors at certain ages can fall within the range of normal childhood development, it is always a good idea to meet with your pediatrician to discuss any concerns you may have.

If you need a pediatrician for your family, call 904.202.4YOU (4968) or fill out the appointment request form. The Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation Autism and Neurodevelopment Center provides early intervention for children as young as 18 months. To learn more about the program, call 904.202.1884.

Written by Baptist Health guest columnist Lee Ann Annotti, PhD, a licensed psychologist with Baptist Behavioral Health and Wolfson Children’s Behavioral Health.


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