How to spot the early signs of autism – and how to prepare for them

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The timing and severity of autism symptoms vary wildly. Some children show potential symptoms at six months old. But in other cases, symptoms aren’t obvious until the children are almost two years old. A few children seem to develop normally until they’re 12 to 18 months old before seeming to regress.

However, there are a few signs of autism that are fairly consistent. Here are a few tips on how to spot the early signs of autism and what to do if your baby is showing some of following early signals:

  • Lack of interest in people
  • A failure to mirror others
  • Delayed language skills
  • Poor or no social skills
  • Difficulty in handling changes

A lack of interest in people

Boys tend to be more interested in things than in people, while girls tend to be more interested in people over things. However, children of both sexes should be interested in other people to some extent. By six months old, the average child will recognize parents and siblings. They will normally smile when they enter the room. They should make eye contact with others, to some degree, by six months old.

Children with autism tend to lose interest in a brightly colored toy as it is moved around (though that may also suggest vision problems). A more significant warning sign is when a child is fixated on unusual objects. For example, a child who stares at a ceiling fan or colors on the floor instead of family members giving them attention, show lack of interest in people. If you notice this with your own child, discuss with your caregiver on how to have your child tested. If doctors confirm autism, you should begin therapy as soon as possible.

A failure to mirror others

One theory is that autism is caused by missing or weak mirroring neurons. These are the neurons that cause a child who sees mom smiling to feel happy and then smile in response. This teaches the child what emotions are associated with the facial expressions of others long before they can verbalize it. 

The next level is mirroring the actions of others and sharing their emotions, literally feeling their joy and sorrow. This is why one potential sign of autism is a baby who doesn’t share verbal sounds with others by nine months, and is not using gestures to communicate by twelve months.

Delayed language skills

A major warning sign of developmental delay is when the child is behind on language skills. Warning signs of autism include:

  • unwillingness to share vocal sounds at nine months
  • not babbling by twelve months
  • not responding to their name by one year old
  • failing to use two-word sentences by 24 months. 

A child that repeats the same sounds over and over again, especially past the age of 2, may be autistic. Children with language delays require speech therapy as soon as possible to minimize future problems.

Poor or no social skills

One likely sign of autism is a lack of social skills, and this can be evident in infancy. A clear sign is when they don’t demonstrate social anticipation. 

Examples:

  • Most children will lift up their arms when seeing mom or dad in anticipation of being picked up. The child that doesn’t react this way is missing the cues for social interaction.
  • Most children will get excited when you pull out a familiar jack-in-a-box or other toys in anticipation of playtime.
  • Another variation of this is a child that doesn’t laugh (or cry) in response to a game of peek-a-boo.

If your child isn’t demonstrating these behaviors by nine months old, this is again a sign they should be assessed for autism.

Difficulty in handling changes

Minor changes in their surroundings or their routine can upset children with autism. Moving a chair or skipping a favorite TV show may get the same reaction as if you threw away their favorite toy. Routine and repetition are essential for these children to remain calm. Even their movements may be repetitive. Flapping, spinning and rocking motions repeated again and again are comforting for them.

Using “social stories” to treat autism in older children

Avoiding others, whether your child is a toddler or teenager, has many possible explanations. However, social isolation plus avoiding eye contact is a possible sign of autism at any age. A significant warning sign is when they struggle to understand the feelings of others. However, there are ways to address this.

If you start noticing some of these symptoms, we suggest you start looking into using “social stories” to help older children. Social stories, invented by teacher Carol Grey in 1989, teach children how to act in various situations while explaining how others think and feel. social stories increase understanding and compliance with rules and routine. 

Social stories encourage identification of important social cues in a non-threatening manner. They can be a powerful way to prepare children for entering an unfamiliar situation and teaching them what they’re expected to do. Social stories help them to navigate social situations and encourage them to participate in group activities. This can lessen their social anxiety, too. For children with highly restricted interests, find social groups that share these interests so that they can work on their social skills.

Another resource you should check out is Autism Parenting Magazine. They have an issue specifically on social stories and the research behind it. It’s also a great resource if you’re looking for new therapy methods, the latest research on the world of autism, or stories from other parents with children on the spectrum. If you want to learn more about Autism Parenting Magazine, you can find more information here.

These signs suggest that a child has autism, though there are other potential explanations. If you observe any of them, have your child screened. And do everything you can to address these issues, instead of waiting and hoping your child will grow out of it. By taking the step to see a health professional, you’ll get the piece of mind that there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on, or get direction on how to help your child manage their autism.

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