Autism Symptoms

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 9, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on September 9, 2014

Autism Signs and Symptoms

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in a child typically appears as unusual development of behavior, social, and communication skills.

The severity of symptoms will vary depending on where the child is on the autism spectrum. According to the Autism Society, characteristic behaviors of autism can appear in infancy, but usually become clearer during early childhood, defined as the time between 24 months to 6 years of age.

Autism is a lifelong problem, but with early intervention and the right ongoing therapy, those with the disorder can live very fulfilling lives. If your child is showing any of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean that they definitely have autism. Speak to a doctor about any of your concerns.

Social Challenges

Sociability will likely be a challenge from an early age for a child with ASD. Infants who go on to develop autism often will not respond to their name being called and will show less than normal interest in watching and interacting with other humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they may seem distant, as though they are not connecting with mom and dad. This is because children with autism have a difficult time interpreting social cues such as smiling or frowning, and it’s hard for them to understand what other are feeling and thinking.

As they grow older children with an ASD might not want to interact with other children. They may not show what is considered “normal” play behavior with toys, imitation, or pretend play. Instead, they will likely be preoccupied with a particular object or interest. The child will show a significant need to stick to specific routines through the day. This can cause serious challenges to participating in any social environment, such as daycare or school.

Repetitive Motions and Obsessive Behaviors

According to Autism Speaks, ASD children may exhibit repetitive motions like:

  • flapping hands
  • rocking their bodies
  • turning in circles

Repetitive behaviors are also common. For example, a child with ASD may take their toys and arrange and rearrange them carefully instead of using them for “pretend” play. They may become upset if the toy arrangement is disturbed.

Repetitive behavior may also come out in the form of intense preoccupation. A child with an ASD may obsess over a normal physical object staring at it for hours on end. They may also become obsessed with learning all about one small subject. For example, learning everything there is to know about a favorite TV show, or becoming an expert on the subtle rules of baseball.

Sensitivities and Emotional Regulation

According to the Mayo Clinic, a child with ASD might also show sensitivity­­ to sights, sounds, smells, and things they touch or that touch them. Sometimes there is a hypersensitivity to sound. The child may cover his ears and cry or run away to avoid the sounds.

Although not universal, it’s common for children (and adults) with autism to control their emotions. Faced with unfamiliar situations or environments, they may cry or have other types of emotional outbursts. They may even resort to self-injury like banging their head or pulling their hair out in frustration. 

Communication Issues

Both verbal and other forms of communication may be limited, lost, or entirely absent.

According to the CDC, a common early sign of communication issues is that a child may not respond to their name. A child with an ASD may avoid eye contact. He or she may not show affection to parents or others. The child may even fail to acknowledge when affectionate behavior is shown towards him or her. This is because children with ASDs have a hard time understanding social cues, and will feel uncertainty about the intentions of others.

This is a common symptom. Many people with an ASD cannot read or express body language. They will hear the words spoken, but will not fully understand. Irony, sarcasm, and other complicated ways of speaking may be lost on someone with an ASD. On the flip side, a person with an ASD may speak without the normal accompanying tones of voice and social cues one might expect. They may come off as robotic or atonal.

To that point, speaking can also be an issue for a child with an ASD. They may also parrot what they hear from other people. The child may repeat what he or she hears on the radio, television, or other sources. Some children may repeat what they hear verbatim, over and over. Others may just copy other speech patterns. In either case, this behavior often takes the place of developing his or her own original speech patterns.

Communication will often continue to be an issue throughout life. People with an ASD will likely have a hard time in conversation. Autistic children tend to speak at, instead of with, their peers. For example, they may go off on a monologue about a current obsession, not letting the person they are speaking with respond. 

What to Do About ASD Symptoms

The severity of symptoms can vary widely. A child might show many or very few of them. If you see any of these signs, it does not necessarily mean that your child has autism. But it’s a good indicator that it is time to visit your doctor.

As long as your child exhibits symptoms, you should see a doctor regularly. A clinician who spends a great deal of time with children should observe your child. It can be difficult for a parent to notice anything unique to their child’s behavior if they are not familiar with typical patterns of development. 

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