How can I tell if my child has autism?

Children and adults with autism may exhibit a single symptom or several symptoms, and manifestations can range from mild to severe

Our understanding of autism has grown a lot in the past few years. Notably, in May 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders made significant changes to the section about pervasive developmental disorders.

In previous versions of this manual published by the American Psychiatric Association, asperger syndrome and autistic disorder were listed separately. In the DSM-5 they, along with many other disorders, fit under a single diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder.

Autism is a collection of closely related disorders that can best be understood on a spectrum. Children or adults with autism may exhibit one or several symptoms, and manifestations can range from mild to severe.

Prevalence and awareness of autism

About 1 in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Research continues to bring to light the risks and causes behind autism, but the disorder is common and has several potential treatment options.

Compared to the past, mental health providers can more easily identify the disorder in children as young as 14 months, which provides the opportunity for early intervention and treatment. Most importantly, an increased awareness of autism and its signs helps parents notice problems and seek help early.

Signs to look for in toddlers

Although some people may not receive a diagnosis until adulthood, many others are fortunate enough to receive an early diagnosis and get help from the start. If you believe your child exhibits unusual behaviors or developmental issues, trust your instincts and investigate until you have an answer. Here is a list of signs to look for that may point to autism in your toddler:

  • Lack of smiles or other joyful expressions by 6 months
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds with you, and lack of facial expressions by 9 months
  • No making noises to get your attention
  • No babbling by 12 months, or only using one or two sounds
  • Failing to play with others or share interest and enjoyment
  • No attempt at gestures (pointing, showing, waving, reaching) by 12 months
  • Inability to follow objects visually or notice when you gesture to an object
  • No usage of words or verbal communication by 16 months
  • Lack of meaningful multi-word phrases by 24 months (not counting imitating or repeating)
  • No attempt at making eye contact
  • Lack of response to his or her name
  • Any loss of speech, gestures, or social skills at any age along the way

Some parents find it helpful to take an online evaluation regarding their toddler before seeking a health care provider’s advice. Autism Speaks offers a free online quiz called M-CHAT-R to help parents evaluate their child’s symptoms.

Diagnosis later on

Some children with autism do not receive a clear diagnosis until age 3 or 4. As you observe your child, remember that social and cognitive impairments, repetitive behaviors and difficulties communicating are the main hallmarks of ASD. Each child develops at an individual rate, so there’s a range of what’s normal. However, if you have questions about missing milestones, talk with your child’s doctor about specific concerns.

An older child usually displays signs related to social and language difficulties:

  • Plays alone and has trouble connecting with others
  • Responds to questions by repeating them
  • Appears disinterested or unaware of people around
  • Uses grammar incorrectly or refers to him or herself in the third person
  • Has difficulty understanding feelings
  • Doesn’t understand simple directions, statements or questions
  • Prefers not to be touched, held or cuddled
  • Interprets things too literally and misses social and humor cues

A child with ASD may have several or all these symptoms but doesn’t have to show each one for a positive diagnosis. For more signs and symptoms of autism at any age, visit

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