Updated: Apr 26
There’s a saying in the autism community: "When you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met...one child with autism." Autism presents differently in every person, so it can be difficult to spot these five signs that a child might have autism. As you look over this list, keep in mind that most children, typically developing or not, will show some of these signs. If the behavior seems to happen more frequently, intensely or last longer than in other children, that’s when it becomes concerning. Any behavior interfering with your child’s daily functioning, it’s always worth mentioning to your child’s doctor.
Autism is primarily a social disorder. This means kids with autism struggle with social behavior. That struggle, to the extreme that it interferes with daily life, is the biggest sign of autism. This can mean the stereotypical not making eye contact, being resistant to physical displays of affection, and always playing alone, never with others. The opposite extreme can also be true for kids with autism. Kids who seem to have no awareness of boundaries, who are always seeking out physical comfort, and constantly insert themselves in others’ games with little awareness of socially acceptable ways to do so may also be showing signs of autism. It's not unusual for kids to be more shy or outgoing than expected, but these behaviors exhibited to an extreme may be a sign of autism, and should be tracked.
Since autism is primarily a social disorder, communication can also be affected. It’s not uncommon for kids to begin speaking later than average, but when looking for signs of autism, it’s not producing the actual words that can be concerning. Sometimes it can also be a sign of autism when kids don't attempt to communicate outside of speech, such as not understanding that they can point to show you something interesting, or to show you what they want. Overall, kids tend to understand speech far beyond what they can speak, so if your child doesn’t respond to her or his name, or doesn’t seem to understand and follow instructions, that can also be concerning. If your child has no problem forming words but those words are just repeated phrases heard elsewhere (such as constantly quoting their favorite television show in response to everything), that is also a sign of a communication struggle that should be tracked. Remember, kids develop at different rates and communication disorders can present without autism.
Sensory Avoiding Behavior
Does your child hate the sensation of tags in the back of his clothing? Scream like she’s being eaten by a pack of hungry lions if peanut butter ends up on her finger? Refuse to let anything touch his head, whether it’s a hat, water from the sprinkler or a stylist’s shears? Some kids are totally overwhelmed by the sensory input they receive from the outside world, and will do anything to avoid it. That tag in the back of the shirt, which might be just a mild annoyance to you and me, feels like it's being painfully dragged across the neck of a kid who is overwhelmed by sensory input. Naturally, this child will do anything he can to avoid this, whether that’s fussing and pulling at his shirt all day, or categorically refusing to wear shirts with tags. Sensory avoiding behavior doesn’t absolutely mean your child has autism. Many kids, typically developing or otherwise, find certain sensory inputs to be overwhelming. However, since many kids with autism also struggle with sensory processing, if you notice your child displaying sensory avoidance behavior it could be a sign you should track.
Sensory Seeking Behavior
The flip side is sensory seeking behavior. Autistic kids try to seek out sensory experiences like spinning, flapping their hands, and banging their heads on walls or floors as an attempt to regulate their systems. Instead of finding sensory inputs to be overwhelming, these kids find it difficult to orient themselves without providing their own sensory experience. In fact, it's not uncommon to see both sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behavior in kids with autism. For example, some kids may find tags in their shirts to be unbearable, but still need extra movement to orient their bodies in a new space. Like sensory avoiding behavior, sensory seeking behavior doesn’t necessarily mean your child has autism. It's just something parents might notice is interfering with their child’s daily functioning, and is therefore worth tracking and mentioning to your pediatrician.
Change is very difficult for kids with autism. A small deviation from routine can be enough to send a kid with autism into a tailspin for days. Kids with autism can also be resistant to exploring interests outside of their own interests. It could be a sign of autism if they choose to focus on something such as trains or weather patterns to the exclusion of all else. Change in routine can be difficult for lots of kids, with or without autism. If your child's struggles feel world-ending and she or he will tear apart everything in arm's reach to avoid change, it's a concern you might want to track.
Parents know their child best, and are most likely to spot the early signs of autism. If you have concerns about your child (whether they show these signs or none of them), contact your child’s doctor to discuss them in detail. Together you can create a plan to provide whatever support your child may need.
Does your child have autism symptoms and behaviors you need to track? Get a free mytaptrack® Parent Packet to help: www.mytaptrack.com/trial