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Early Signs of Autism in Children

posted by Rob on Monday, 26 March 2018

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; with early signs of autism in children typically appearing between 12 and 18 months. Autism affects a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. Autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be ‘cured’. People with autism experience the world differently to others, and around 700,000 people in the UK are living with autism – that’s more than 1 in 100 (Brugha T.S. et al., 2011). People from all backgrounds can be autistic, although it appears to affect more men than women.

Early Signs of Autism in Children

Although autism is difficult to diagnose before 24 months, first symptoms often arise between 12 and 18 months. The early signs of autism in children involve the absence of ‘normal’ behaviours�not the presence of abnormal ones. This makes symptoms quite hard to spot. In some cases, the earliest symptoms can even misinterpreted as signs of a “good baby,” since the toddler may seem quiet, independent, and undemanding. However, you can catch warning signs early if you know what to look for.

Early Signs of Autism in Children

Not babbling

Babbling refers to the sounds that babies make before they begin to talk, such as vowel and consonant combinations like “ba”, “da”, and “gee”. Twelve month olds should look at someone while they babble, and take turns babbling with caregivers (like a back-and-forth babbling “conversation”).

No more than one word by 16 months

A lack of vocabulary at 16 months is a tell-tale sign of autism, especially if the infant has only said one word.

Poor eye contact

Not looking at caregivers when communicating or playing with them.

No eye following

This could be as simple as not following an object to not looking in the direction of a caregiver’s finger when he or she points to something. A typical 12-month-old will look when someone points to a toy on a shelf, for example.

Difficulty in mixing with others

If a child does not seek out interaction with others, or rarely smiles or laughs when playing with a caregiver, this is an indicator for autism.

Spinning objects or other repetitive actions

Some typically-developing babies do repetitive actions once in a while, but babies with autism demonstrate these actions more often. For example, spinning a car wheel over and over again, rather than playing with the toy appropriately. Another example would be a child flapping his hands repetitively.

Not smiling when smiled at

A natural reaction for a developing child is to imitate actions like clapping hands, smiling, or people’s speech sounds. One of the early signs of autism in children is not responding to a caregiver’s expression in the appropriate way, e.g. smiling when smiled at or talked to.

Inappropriate laughing or giggling

Autistic people struggle with “proper” behaviour and some children with autism have a difficult time distinguishing IF they can laugh. Those clues are too subtle for them and some just laugh no matter what situation they’re in.


A symptom of some children with ASD is the struggle to produce spontaneous speech. Studies have shown that in some cases echolalia (repeating words or phrases said by another person) is used as a coping mechanism allowing a person with autism to contribute to a conversation when unable to produce spontaneous speech.

Do not want to be touched

Another one of the early signs of autism in children is physical contact, or moreover the lack of wanting it. Children with autism may pull away from being touched, hugged or having their hand held.

Learn More

If you have an interest in working with children with specific learning needs, such as autism, you may wish to consider the Autism Awareness Level 2 Certificate RQF (NVQ) or Additional Support for Children with Special Education Needs (SEN) distance learning courses offered by Oxbridge Home Learning.

These specialised courses will teach you strategies for preparing lessons and teaching materials and introduce approaches to helping pupils develop confidence in their ability to learn and exhibit positive behaviour.