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How to Spot the Early Signs of Autism in Babies & Toddlers

Christopher was 3 years old when it happened.

He acted different, played with toys in his own way, and seemed out of touch with the world around him and I didn’t know WHY. After an evaluation, my world went completely upside down.

He was autistic.  

Looking back at the years prior to this bombshell, the phrase “If only I had known…”  keeps popping up.  So many frustrations would have been quelled.

I wish I had paid more attention to the early signs of autism, because I could have gotten him help a LOT sooner. The earlier autism is caught, the bigger impact the treatments have on successfully providing life-changing skills he will use forever.

Here in Wisconsin, they have a program called Birth to Three.  Your doctor will be able to refer you to local early intervention programs if necessary.

Autism is Like a Puzzle

You have to look at all the pieces and figure out how they fit together.  Your doctor will rely on you knowing the pieces he’s looking for in order to give your child the proper testing and evaluation to provide a diagnosis.

So today we’re going to look at some of those pieces. Before we do though, let’s take a deep breath.

These snapshots are meant to help you see possible patterns and then bring that information to your pediatrician for evaluation.  They are not meant to add extra worry or stress.  Remember, knowledge is power!

This is by no means an inclusive list!  It’s a “let’s get the conversation started” kind of list.

Make a note of what the early signs are (or let The Milestone Marker do it for you) and then bring those to the attention of your doctor.

Early Signs of Autism #1
No Response

Watch your baby for …

  • doesn’t respond to their own name
  • doesn’t turn their head to locate where sounds are coming from

As they grow, typically developing children will turn and respond to noise, a caregiver’s voice, etc. Usually by 6 months old, there will be some response from loud noises or talking.

Early Signs of Autism #2
Blooming a Little Too Late

Has your baby been LATE in meeting his developmental milestones?  I know all kids grow at different rates, but most hit the major milestones (i.e rolling over, crawling, walking, etc.) within a reasonable amount of time.

My son crawled at 10 months old, got his first tooth at almost 9 months old, and started walking at 16 months old.

If your not sure what qualifies as “late” Heather’s ebook The Milestone Marker includes a wonderful checklist called “How to Spot a Delay” that is invaluable in knowing when it’s time to call the doctor.

Early Signs of Autism #3
A Little Too Perfect

“What a good baby!” they all say.

But sometimes that’s not a compliment.  Babies who are a little too silent can be harboring signs of autism:  keeping to themselves, no cooing, no facial expressions, no babbling, or talking.

My son was a good baby, who kept to himself.  He had moments of facial expressions and some babbling, but the words were very limited – maybe 4 by the age of 18 months.

Early Signs of Autism #4
Focusing on the Wrong Things

Does your baby/toddler seem like he’s in his own little world…

  • Looks off in space
  • Makes no eye contact
  • Doesn’t look for items you hide
  • Shows no notice or care when the caregiver leaves or return
  • Focuses on only visually stimulating toys, i.e lights, sounds, etc.

We got to the point in our house, before he was diagnosed, where we had to remove all battery operated toys because he would fixate on them and he never played with toys appropriately, i.e.  pushed a truck on the floor making motor sounds, etc.

The toys Christopher enjoyed the most were the “fixed” toys, the ones that had a definite beginning/end and could be repeatable.  Toys like shape sorters or pop-up toys like this.

The toys he didn’t like to play with were the more “typical” toys like cars, stuffed animals, or doodle pads.  They were too open ended, requiring imagination and spontaneity to play with.  These frustrated him because he didn’t know when he was “done” with them.

The only exception to this would be toys that provide sensory input, like the penquin race, or squishy toys with lights in them.

Early Signs of Autism #5
Fixates on Things

This is similar to sign #4, except it goes beyond focus.

It’s fixating.  Think of the word “focus” and then turn it up to 11.

  • has to have things in a very specific way or order
  • gives ALL his attention to items that entertain or draw the child in, i.e. videos, electronics, lights, music
  • will often request for that item to be played or shown, over and over and over

This was just how our son was, he liked repetition and would throw fits if certain things weren’t set up exactly as before, i.e. toast had to be cut in triangles, not rectangles.  He would also want Baby Einstein played over and over and over again.

Early Signs of Autism #6
Life is Like a Snow Globe

You know how you peer into a snow globe?  Does your toddler approach life like he’s looking at a snow globe?

  • How often does he sit back and watch everything, without ever jumping in and participating?
  • Does it seem like he doesn’t quite “fit in” with his peers at playgrounds, daycare, church, social settings, etc?
  • In a group setting, will he sit alone somewhere in the room and let the kids play pretend and run around without him?
  • Will his eyes gloss over a room full of toys and kids and drive him towards non-toy items like curtains to pull and play with?
  • Does he seem to wander around a lot, not knowing what to do?

With my son, these were the consistent, heart-breaking moments for me as a mom.

We’d go to someone’s house for a playdate, and there my son would be, getting into things that weren’t toys or he would just be off alone in the corner staring at a certain toy or pushing buttons over and over on a toy. I confess there were many times I just got up and left because I was frustrated with him and embarrassed , grieved, and my heart couldn’t take seeing the “typical” kids in comparison to him.

I still struggle with this, although not as much. Initially I let his differences feed my grief and bitterness and lead me into depression. But through counseling, support group at the Autism Society, and my faith, I came to see my son’s strengths and focus on those instead.

I removed the word “normal” from our vocabulary and I chose to not see my son as a problem to be fixed.

Early Signs of Autism #7
Selective Imitation

Children showing the beginning signs of autism will have no interest in imitating you or others.

This can actually be a two-edged sword.

  • On one hand, it’s sad because they won’t try to use the broom to sweep the floor like mommy.
  • On the other hand, it can be positive, because they won’t jump all over the furniture like a sibling. 🙂

Even though they tend not to imitate the behaviors of those around them, it is very common for them to imitate movie conversations, book lines, and songs once their verbal skills have improved.

This is called echolalia, which means repeated speech.

My son is a Olympic medalist in this category… never imitated anything I did or my husband, but MAN can he quote movies and books like nobody’s business!

For the first 2 years of his “talking” it was all movie scripts. I remember hearing “You.. are… a toy, you are not the real Buzz Lightyear!” over and over and over again at 2 in the morning.

As hard as that was, there is a major benefit to echolalia.  A child exhibiting those symptoms will have much he was able to learn language and thus communicate it back.

Not all kiddos exhibit echolalia, so don’t freak out if your little one doesn’t.  Remember, these early signs are just snapshots!  Your doctor will be able to put them altogether to get the big picture for a possible diagnosis.

Early Signs of Autism #7½
A Mother’s Intuition

I gave this a half not because it’s less important (in fact, it’s vitally important), but because it’s not something your doctor will be looking for in getting that Big Picture that can lead to a diagnosis.  (If he does ask you about this – you’ve got a winning pediatrician!)

Trust your instincts.

Perhaps have have a suspicion based on one of the signs above.

Or maybe this has stirred up a few questions about a behavior your child is showing.

The best thing you can do is ASK, and the earlier you ask, the better off your child will be.

Surfing the Parenting Waves

Your job right now is to find that perfect balance on the waves of parenthood.

You don’t want to slip backwards and ignore possible signs of autism.  Don’t just close your eyes and think happy thoughts and dreams…that kind of “head in the sand” approach won’t help anyone.

You also don’t want to push forward and start to panic over all the possibilities and worries that come with the word “autism”.

Remember, you don’t know anything yet. You are just looking at snapshots of possible signs.

Okay, if you see some things, or have questions, talk to a professional, a doctor, a teacher, and start investigating.

Don’t FREAK out! It is okay!

Autism is NOT a death sentence, you and your child will survive it!

It’s just a new “normal”.

A different path. A new adventure.

Do you know someone who has a child with autism? Have you noticed any of these signs in your toddler?

You aren’t alone.  Share your comments below and be encouraged!

Have You Read These Yet?

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8 thoughts on “How to Spot the Early Signs of Autism in Babies & Toddlers

  1. Hello! Well written article! Thank you for your awareness in this matter. I have a friend who’s son is about 32 months old. I usually watch him from time to time and noticed a few things odd about him. He doesn’t respond to his name. He doesn’t do his own imaginative play and he is non verbal as well. Very little eye contact and the way he uses his hands with eating or holding a fork, is awkward. How do I approach my friend about my concerns of her son being autistic? I don’t want to alarm her or hurt her feelings. Any advice?

    1. Dear Ambra,

      That is such a tricky situation! What a great friend you are to be concerned and want to be helpful. Has she at all shared any concern about his potential delays? Are there ways you could ask her when her last well-child visit was? That perhaps the doctor may be able to help with (something)? See if you could gently help her see that getting him in to be evaluated might be a good idea, just for general health. The doctor then can be the one to share perhaps there might be some delay issues. And you can be the close friend and confidant to help her get through it!

      Warmly,
      Jenny

  2. I’m in tears reading this. We just adopted our son in January and one of the first things we noticed was lack of eye contact. That still persists. And he’s delayed in babbling, rolling, is blank when looking at his reflection…Is just..’there.’ He’s 8 months old. No teeth yet either. Took him to a paediatrician who made me feel like a paranoid loser. (We have three other children). But this week I took him to another doctor and she was as dismayed as I feel. In 4-6 weeks’ time if there’s no dramatic improvement, I’m taking him back and she’s going to send him “to therapy.” Not sure what type.

    Anyway, thank you for this list. We ‘joked’ at 5 months old that he was autistic. I even explained to the other kids about possible echolalia etc. But we only played about it because of the lack of eye contact. Now it may possibly be true and I’m part scared and part relieved. It’s scary how he fits so many of these things on the list. Thank you for your advice not to ignore things and to trust your gut. It helps.

    1. Oh friend, I totally understand. I’m glad it could help. Just remember, even if he is autistic, it’s not a death sentence. There is such a wide range on the spectrum of autism. I know autistic adults who are completely self functioning. The good news is the earlier you catch the signs, the more effective and long-lasting the treatment. So keep doing exactly what you’re doing, searching for answers and trying new things! xo

  3. What a great list of things to look out for! 🙂 Here is another thought to add to the conversation. Keep in mind that some of the same early signs of autism can actually be the result of undiagnosed deafness or hearing impairment instead. Children who can’t hear well, or hear at all, will also show no response to sounds in the environment, speech delay, difficulty with socialization, and non-participation in activities. If your child is doing those things, it is important to get their hearing checked as well.

  4. My brother has a child who they think may have autism. He’s exhibiting the early signs; not speaking yet (he should have started babbling and forming words by now), and learning to crawl and walk at a later time than his sibling. They’re going to have him evaluated by a developmental specialist, but I’ll share this with my brother just in case. Thank you for the valuable information.

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