Most parents observe early signs of autism in their child by age 2 years, but some appear as early as 2 months. Limited eye contact, lack of gesturing, and not responding to their name are some early signs.

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As a parent or caregiver of an infant, you have an up-close view of your baby’s development. You can see the small changes in day-to-day behaviors that indicate a baby is building new skills and abilities.

If you know what to look for, you may be able to detect early signs of developmental differences like autism. This is because the earliest signs of autism aren’t the presence of unexpected behavior, but the absence of a skill or ability that usually develops by a certain age.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most parents with autistic children notice some signs within the first year, and 80 to 90 percent observe developmental differences by the time their child is 2 years old.

Your observations and instincts are important because identifying developmental differences early gives the child in your care the advantage of early diagnosis.

Autism doesn’t change a baby’s physical appearance. The condition does affect how babies communicate and how they relate to the world around them.

Autism is described as a “spectrum” condition because signs, symptoms, and abilities can vary widely. If you notice any of these developmental differences, it’s important to talk with your child’s doctor or healthcare professional about them.

Recommended developmental screenings

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants have developmental screenings at their 9-, 18-, and 30-month doctor visits, plus autism-specific screenings at 18- and 24-month visits.

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Declining eye contact

Babies typically make eye contact with other people from a very young age. By 2 months, infants can typically locate faces and make eye contact skillfully. Eye contact later becomes a way of building social relationships and gaining information about their surroundings.

Researchers have found that babies who develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD) begin making less eye contact at around 2 months of age. The decline in eye contact may be an early indicator of autism.

Little pointing or gesturing

Babies usually learn to gesture before they learn to talk. In fact, gesturing is one of the earliest forms of communication. Autistic children generally point and gesture much less than children with nonautistic development. Less pointing can sometimes indicate the possibility of a language delay.

Another indicator of a developmental difference is when an infant’s gaze doesn’t follow you when you’re pointing at something. This skill is sometimes called “joint attention.” Joint attention is often decreased in autistic children.

Limited or no response to their name

At 6 months, most infants show an awareness of their own names, especially when it’s spoken by their mother.

Autistic infants show a developmental difference: By 9 months, many babies who later develop ASD don’t orient to their own names. Researchers say this usually appears as a pattern of nonresponse, rather than a single instance.

Reduced emotion in facial expressions

Facial expressions are a nonverbal way to communicate thoughts and feelings.

Research on emotional expression in autistic infants is limited, but in studies involving school-age children, researchers have found that autistic children display less emotion through facial expressions than children with nonautistic development.

That doesn’t necessarily mean autistic children are feeling less emotion, just that less of it shows on their faces when they do.

Delayed language or speech

Babies and toddlers start talking at different ages.

Research shows that young autistic children often say and understand fewer words than children with nonautistic development at 12 months. If a child isn’t saying single words by 16 months or isn’t using two-word phrases by age 2, it’s a good idea to talk with a pediatrician.

The National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says language development could be “uneven,” with exceptional language development in some areas and impairment in other areas.


When an infant or toddler loses skills and abilities that had begun to develop, it can be an indication of autism. It can also be a profoundly difficult experience for parents and caregivers to witness.

Researchers don’t know why regression happens. There are no known links to any childhood experiences, diseases, or medications.

As many as one-third of autistic children lose skills after infancy and before preschool. Around 94 percent of the time, it’s language skills that are lost. If your baby babbled, made eye contact, gestured, and displayed other social behaviors and stopped doing so as a toddler, it’s something to discuss with your pediatrician.

How to track your baby’s development

While babies grow at their own individual pace, you can use the CDC’s Developmental Milestones guide to get a general idea of which skills to expect at each age. You can also download CDC’s Milestone Tracker app.

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a set of developmental differences that affect the way people communicate, behave, and interact with others.

The CDC estimates that 1 in every 54 children is autistic. Although more boys than girls are autistic, the condition occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

Because autism has many different characteristics, researchers think it may have different causes. Here’s a brief glimpse of the possible causes that may contribute to the development of ASD:

  • genetics
  • exposure to certain environmental toxins, such as traffic-generated air pollution or pesticides
  • chromosomal conditions, such as tuberous sclerosis or fragile X syndrome
  • certain medications taken during pregnancy, such as thalidomide, valproic acid
  • being born to older parents
  • low birth weight
  • loss of oxygen during birth
  • mothers with diabetes, obesity, or certain immune disorders
  • immune disorders, metabolic conditions, and brain connectivity differences

Research into the causes is ongoing. Repeated studies have shown that vaccines (immunizations) do not cause autism.

Parents of autistic children often wonder if they’re at fault for their child’s diagnosis. If you’re noticing signs of autism in an infant in your care, you may be questioning your decisions or blaming yourself for your child’s developmental differences. You may also be feeling pressured to get every decision right as you speak with healthcare professionals about early diagnosis. These thoughts and feelings are very common, but remember, autism is no one’s fault.

You may find it helpful to:

  • connect with other parents through support groups
  • seek some extra training on ASD, which can lower stress
  • find out about local ASD resources
  • learn about stress management techniques, including mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and expressive writing
  • work with a family therapist or counselor to process your feelings and equip you with coping skills

Some signs and symptoms of autism develop as infants become toddlers and preschoolers. Here’s what you might notice:

  • repetitive movements, such as hand flapping or spinning
  • intense interest in a few special subjects
  • excessive lining up of toys
  • trouble sensing or understanding the feelings of others
  • gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, gassiness, stomach pain
  • adherence to routines, systems, and schedules
  • difficulty expressing emotions freely
  • repetitive words and phrases
  • strong emotion when unexpected changes occur

Some strategies may help autistic children develop additional skills to help with daily functioning. Because autism characteristics are so varied, a multimodal approach is usually the most effective course.

Depending on your child’s symptoms, one or more of these therapies may be useful:

Autism is a spectrum of neurological differences that develop during childhood.

Although there is not a cure for autism, many in the autism community believe these neurological differences don’t need to be cured. They’re just a different way of communicating and interacting with the world.

Decades of research have shown that early intervention can have a powerful effect on health outcomes for autistic children. When therapies begin in early childhood, autistic children benefit from the incredible adaptability of their growing brain and nervous system.

Some signs of autism can appear during infancy, such as:

  • limited eye contact
  • lack of gesturing or pointing
  • absence of joint attention
  • no response to hearing their name
  • muted emotion in facial expression
  • lack or loss of language

If you notice any of these developmental differences, it’s important to talk with your child’s pediatrician or healthcare professional. Early diagnosis and intervention are the keys to better health outcomes for autistic children.

Although there isn’t a “cure” for autism, there are a number of well-researched, effective therapies that can enhance skills, reduce anxiety, and lead to greater well-being for your child.

As you’re monitoring your child’s development and seeking interventions when necessary, be mindful to care for yourself with the same devotion you show to your complex and marvelous child.