10 Signs of Autism: What to Look For

Updated on June 22, 2017
Joan Dragonfly profile image

When a young family member of mine exhibited behavioral and social differences, I realized I was witnessing the classic signs of autism.

Autistic child raising arms to the sun.
Autistic child raising arms to the sun. | Source

Autism: Early Intervention is Important

This helpful guide with illustrations has been created to assist parents and caregivers in determining if a child may be autistic.

Until a child is between 18 months and 3 years old, it can be difficult to determine if a child has autism. Recent studies have shown that the number of people with autism has risen to an astounding 1 in 45 people. You may notice differences in ability and behavior between a child thought to have the disorder and other children of similar age or younger.

When a young family member of mine exhibited a difference in behavior and social patterns than I was used to seeing in children that age, I did my research to discover that I was witnessing classic signs of autism. A short time later, the child's parents announced the doctor's diagnosis of ASD. We learned of the importance of early intervention at the first signs of autism to assist in brain development.

The following list represents the signs of autism that I have witnessed in observing a close family member with the disorder between the ages of 1 and 2 years old, but there are different levels of severity on the autism spectrum. Surely, there are many more factors and behaviors that I may not have mentioned that others have experienced, so please feel free to enter any signs of autism that I haven't mention in the comment section below. It is interesting to see how vastly different other cases of ASD can really be. From my own observations, here are some early detection signs of autism to look for.

Infrequent eye contact.
Infrequent eye contact. | Source

1. Insufficient Social Interaction

Infrequent smiling, eye contact, or talking may be signs of a developmental disability. A child with autism may smile, talk, and make eye contact, but they may not do it very often. It may seem awkward or uncomfortable for them. In general, they may appear to be very serious or determined. They don't usually look other people in the eye and it can be very difficult to get their attention (even if the child is called by name).

You may wonder if it could be a problem with their hearing or eyesight, which you soon discover is not the case. Verbal communication may be limited. Speaking can be delayed, the child may never speak, or they may reluctantly only say a few words after being coached through speech therapy. Other forms of communication can be used, such as sign language or the use of devices.

Friends and family may have a difficult time bonding with a child who is autistic, no matter how much they try to interact or show their affection. Many children with autism don't like to be held or hugged, so their loved ones may experience being pushed away, literally. Although relatives love to greet children with hugs and kisses, they should understand that they need to stay low-key and keep their voices low and mellow, so they do not upset the autistic child who may have a difficult time adjusting to a new environment (such as going to a birthday party at a friend or relative's house).

Repetitive movement or stimming.
Repetitive movement or stimming. | Source

2. Repetitive Movements ("Stimming")

Repetition is a way in which children with autism sooth themselves or show excitement about something. Repetitive movements or behavior may include (but are not limited to) rocking back and forth, walking on tiptoes, pacing, head-banging, twisting wrists, flapping hands, repetitive movement of objects (such as pouring a cup of sand from one cup into another cup over and over again) or repetitive vocal sounds, such as motor-like noises, moaning, or bubbling sounds.


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Wandering off in their own world.
Wandering off in their own world. | Source

3. In Their Own World

A caregiver may have trouble getting the attention of an autistic child and may not be acknowledged, even if the child is called by name. The child may wander, as if they are in their own world, and will usually resist or become upset, if redirected. Some caregivers use a safety harness on an autistic child to keep them from running away or becoming a danger to themselves or others.

A child with autism may like things orderly.
A child with autism may like things orderly. | Source

4. The Need for Order

A child with autism may seem to prefer things to be orderly, neat and tidy, or done a certain way. If something isn't the way they expect it to be, they may try to change it. And if they are interrupted or averted, their frustration about the need for change may result in an outburst.

Autistic child's outburst.
Autistic child's outburst. | Source

5. Outbursts

One minute an autistic child could be calmly engaging in an activity and then the next minute... they let out an unexpected holler (possibly accompanied by shaking with clenched fists), as if they are excited about something, but a clear reason can’t be determined. In more severe cases of autism, a caregiver may intervene to assist in preventing or alleviating self-injurious behavior during an outburst (such as head banging) which may sometimes be linked to seizures.

Sensitive to background activity.
Sensitive to background activity. | Source

6. Sensitivity to Sensory Input

An autistic child may be more apt to notice sounds, movement, or visual stimulation more intensely than others (called hypersensitivity... although I've heard the opposite is also possible with hyposensitivity). People without the disorder are usually able to ignore things that happen in the background that they encounter frequently, such as bright lights, feeling the ground shake under their feet from transportation or construction, noise from vehicles, machinery, birds chirping, dogs barking, horns honking etc..., but to a child with autism, these things may not seem to be going on in the background. The stimuli may be overwhelming and they may not know how to handle so much sensory input bombarding them all at once. Becoming overstimulated could result in the child getting upset or having an outburst. I even witnessed a time when the autistic child did not like a particular sound that a toy made and became upset any time that same sound was repeated. It took a little while for me to figure out that sound should not be played any more. Although, pressing any other buttons on the toy did not seem to bother the autistic child at all.

Long periods of sleep.
Long periods of sleep. | Source

7. Sleeping for Extended Periods of Time

Sleep is a wonderful thing, but when the duration of napping or bedtime seems longer than it should be on a regular basis, there may be an underlying condition. Autistic children may tend to sleep longer than others without the disorder. I have witnessed the autistic child in my family to oversleep regularly, but I've also read that autistic children tend to have sleep problems.

No understanding of imaginative play.
No understanding of imaginative play. | Source

8. Lack of Interest in Imaginative Play

A child with autism may enjoy knocking over blocks that are built for them. They may enjoy listening to a toy play music or press some buttons to hear more sounds, but if someone else initiates pretend play… the autistic child may turn away, as if uninterested or they may just not understand that type of interaction and become frustrated or upset.

Likes repeating patterns.
Likes repeating patterns. | Source

9. Fascination With an Object or Pattern

Does the child seem fascinated with an object or a repeating pattern? Although studies have shown that babies love looking at patterns, autistic children may seem to be very interested in (or even obsessed with) something in particular. I've watched my autistic loved one walk back and forth many times over and over, while looking at anything with columns out of the corner of the eye and seems to seek them out anywhere we go (example: columns found on railings, decks, fences, and even many of the same object placed side by side to create the appearance of columns). In this case, the ritual seemed to be soothing for the autistic child and is most likely part of "stimming," as mentioned above (see number 2, "Repetitive Movements").

Walking with head tilted to one side.
Walking with head tilted to one side. | Source

10. Head Tilt

An autistic child may generally present themselves in a regular upright position, but some may occasionally tilt the head to one side (in this case, close to the shoulder) and can even do this while walking. This was the first sign that my family noticed as a potential indication of a neurological disorder. Head tilting may be related to an autistic child using their peripheral vision to look at something in a certain way. The idea of an autistic child liking to use their peripheral vision may also go along with what was mentioned above (number 9, "Fascination With an Object or Pattern") and the thrill of looking at columns out of the corner of the eye.

Geneticist Shares What We Know and Don't Know About Autism


Autism and the levels of severity may be different from one individual to another, which is why it is called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The full spectrum of cases can range from high-functioning autistics (see also Asperger's Syndrome), where there can be rare instances of autistics with incredible abilities (called Autistic Savants)... to mid-level cases of autism, which may have further impairment in communication and social skills and increased repetitive behavior... all the way to severe cases of autism, which may include the inability to communicate at all using language, have recurring seizures, engage in self-injurious behaviors, and/or have unexpected and difficult to control outbursts (which may provoke protective intervention by caregivers, if the autistic individual's actions become a danger to themselves or others).

Some individuals who have autism can become productive members of society, while others may be dependent on caregivers for the rest of their lives, either in a guardian's home or in a facility with specialized care. Unfortunately, there are many factors that can contribute to the development of autism, so a person may never know the true cause of their own case and whether or not it was caused by genetic or environmental factors.

Early intervention by an autism specialist is very important in the development of a child diagnosed with autism in many ways, such as better social skills and increased emotional, mental, and physical abilities. Parents that help interact with specialists and their autistic child have a better understanding of the best ways to communicate, teach, help, and care for their child. The invaluable knowledge gained through autism specialists helps families with an autistic child live more productive, happier, and less stressful lives.

Autism Vocabulary:

    is the loss of social and communication skills that an autistic individual may have had previously (EXAMPLE: An autistic child could say a couple words at 18 months old, but then lost the ability to say those same words by 24 months old).
    is the repetition of a word, phrase, or sentence spoken by someone else that an autistic individual remembers and uses themselves (sometimes in response to a question, even if it doesn't answer the question).
    EXAMPLE: A mother asks, "Do you want a piece of cake?" and her autistic child replies "cake" (instead of "yes"). There is also "Delayed Echolalia" where the words repeated are used later on.
    is a developmental disability that usually impairs social and communication skills, as well as causing an individual to engage in repetitive or ritualistic behavior.
    is a developmental disability that is a form of high-functioning autism with less severe symptoms than others with ASD. They may have typical or above average IQs, however they still experience social awkwardness, ritualistic behaviors, repetitive mannerisms, and may be very preoccupied with a particular interest. An individual with AS may have difficulty understanding figurative or implied speech and take what is said literally, even though they may have a verbose style of talking demonstrating their large vocabulary.
    is a developmental disability that is a part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) where a person has difficulties with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors, but has extraordinary capabilities (such as unusually advanced memory skills) far beyond what is considered to be normal.
    is usually associated with individuals that have a developmental disability, especially found in a person with moderate to severe ASD. These behaviors may include head-banging, biting, scratching, punching, rubbing, etc… Causes are theorized to be due to any number of factors, such as the brain’s way of helping the body release its own pain-blocking chemicals (such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine) and this behavior can also be associated with seizure activity, pain from ear infections, migraine headaches, a way to get what they want from others, or a means of escaping an uncomfortable social situation.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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    © 2017 Joan Dragonfly


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