6 early signs of childhood autism

How to detect autism early in children.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability that can affect each person in a variety of ways. The autistic community is diverse, and the ways individuals communicate, think and interact vary widely. Every autistic person experiences autism differently, and their needs can change and evolve over time. While some individuals may need more support in their day-to-day lives, others need less.

How common is autism?

Autism can be diagnosed in children, sometimes as early as 18 months old, as well as in adolescents and adults. Many different environmental, biologic and genetic factors may make an autism diagnosis more likely. Risk factors may include one’s genes, being born to older parents and a family history of having autism, state the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Autism is not caused by poor parenting or vaccinations. It occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. According to the CDC, about 1 in 44 children in the United States is diagnosed with ASD.

How is autism diagnosed?

Doctors use behavioral and developmental tests to make an autism diagnosis, because medical tests, such as blood tests, cannot diagnose the disorders. Currently, an autism diagnosis includes a developmental screening by a physician that checks if children are learning basic skills for their age, or if there are delays. Development screening is recommended at regular well-child doctor visits.

Because several factors can influence the development of autism, a separate comprehensive evaluation is also used to diagnose ASD. This evaluation may include looking at the child’s behavior and development, interviewing the parents, genetic testing, hearing and vision screening and neurological and other medical testing.

Characteristics of autism may be observed during early childhood, but autism tends to go undiagnosed until much later in life, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

What are the signs of autism?

Here are six signs to look for in early childhood:


At 6 months

Few or no big smiles and limited eye contact.


At 9 months

Little or no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or facial expression.


At 12 months

Little or no response to name, no back-and-forth gestures like reaching or waving.


At 16 months

Little or no words.


At 24 months

Very few or no meaningful two-word phrases.


At any age

Avoids eye contact, delayed language development, prefers to be alone.

People with ASD, regardless of their age, can also share these behaviors and interests:

  • Flapping hands, rocking their bodies or spinning in circles
  • Lining up objects and getting upset when the order changes
  • Playing with toys the same way each time
  • Reacting to the way things feel, look, smell, sound or taste
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Wanting to follow certain routines

Research has shown that diagnosis and high-quality intervention at an early age can improve communication, learning and brain development. Once individuals are diagnosed, WHO emphasizes that children, adolescents and adults with autism and their loved ones should receive information, services, referrals, and practical support. It’s important to learn the signs of ASD — and take action early. If you think your child might have ASD, we encourage you to talk to your child’s pediatrician.

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