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6 Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children

How to recognize early signs of autism.

Key points

  • Difficulty with social interaction is the most prominent sign of autism, yet it's easy to miss in early childhood.
  • A lack of eye contact is directly related to social deficiencies.
  • Children with autism often aren't interested in the games or play that most neurotypical children engage in.

Autism is a condition that tends to be rather difficult to diagnose. There is a saying that if you've met a child with autism, well, you've met one child with autism, because each one is vastly different. This is why it's defined as a spectrum of signs and symptoms that fall under the umbrella of the same category.

The autism spectrum is characterized as a neurodivergent condition that affects social development and interaction, behavior, speech, and communication, with or without intellectual disability. In diagnosing autism, symptoms typically appear before the age of three. This is why it's mostly diagnosed in children, but that's not to say that adults cannot have autism.

While the main criterion is symptoms appearing under the age of three, children can still be diagnosed later rather than earlier. In fact, autism in girls tends to be misdiagnosed or diagnosed late in life, sometimes all the way into their twenties, due to a phenomenon called masking. Masking is a psychological process that girls often master, even in childhood, in which they conceal or disguise personality traits and behaviors, often due to environmental factors or societal expectations.

In fact, most parents will excuse oddities and behavioral issues they notice with their children in childhood, and will only recognize their son or daughter is significantly different from their peers during pre-adolescent and adolescent years. This is often the case with males. By adolescence, children who are on the autism spectrum struggle with significant immaturity as a result of a marked difficulty in reaching social cues, which often leads to pronounced social anxiety. It is usually around this time that parents and adolescents learn about autism spectrum disorder for the first time.

As previously mentioned, there are many different forms of autism, some of which are referred to as atypical autism, from which stems the difficulties in diagnosing the condition and the reason specialists consider it to be a spectrum. However, there are a few signs and symptoms that appear quite early and can be suggestive of autism spectrum disorder.

1. Deficient social interaction

This one is the most prominent signs, and yet, paradoxically, it's easy to miss in early childhood. Pay attention to your child and how they behave with other kids, with close relatives, and even with strangers. Kids with autism will be less likely to engage with other individuals and some of them will display signs of feeling uncomfortable in social situations.

2. Lack of eye contact

While not all children with autism have this symptom, it is still quite common and easy to spot. Because of the way that a child on the spectrum behaves or interacts, the lack of eye contact is directly related to their social deficiencies. Neurotypical people make eye contact in an attempt to create a human connection, which is something that children with autism don't really feel the need for.

3. Stereotypical playing

Children with autism are not particularly interested in the games or play that most neurotypical children engage in. They may not find team games appealing, and they might engage mostly in playing that involves organizing items and categorizing them, fixating on a certain activity and losing interest in anything other than that activity. This can be easy to miss, as it can also be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but, associated with a very young age and other symptoms, it can qualify as a sign of autism spectrum disorder.

4. Sensory dysfunction

Children with autism are predisposed to sensory overload, which is a type of hypersensitivity to stimuli. It can affect any of the elements of the sensorium. This explains why certain kids have a strong dislike for clothing made of certain fabrics, or why they refuse to eat certain foods, either due to taste or texture. Overwhelming stimuli are most often auditory, with certain sounds or frequencies triggering negative reactions.

5. Restricted or repetitive behaviors

While this is something typically noticed during playing, it is not limited to play. It can happen in the form of tics, which are repetitive behaviors that happen in a compulsive manner. As opposed to obsessive-compulsive disorder, in autism these compulsions can be traced to a sort of logic that makes sense to them. On the other hand, some behaviors can be restricted, and an example of this would be your child sitting still like a statue while other children their age look restless.

6. Delayed language milestones

This is a sign that can appear in many shapes and forms. Your child might refuse to speak until very late in life but then start speaking in full sentences. They might babble little or not at all as infants. Because of their deficient social interaction, they might not respond to their own names. While this refers mostly to verbal communication, non-verbal communication may also be affected, so you may notice no gesturing when your child speaks.

All in all, autism is a condition that is important to diagnose early on in order for your child to receive proper care and to be properly understood. Children on the autism spectrum can grow up to lead perfectly normal lives as long as their primary care is adapted and optimized to their needs.

It is also important to note that autism doesn't necessarily equal a mental or an intellectual delay. In fact, only 30-40% of children with diagnosed autism also suffer from an intellectual disability, and out of that percentage, it is uncertain how many of them are merely IQ testing errors due to their inability to communicate effectively. Out of the rest of them, many kids with autism can be particularly bright and only have a hard time vocalizing what is going through their minds.

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