Signs and symptoms
In general, children with autism have problems in three crucial areas of development — social skills, language and behavior. The most severe autism is marked by a complete inability to communicate or interact with other people.
Because the symptoms of autism vary widely, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills.
If your child has autism, he or she may develop normally for the first few months — or years — of life and then later become less responsive to other people, including you. You may recognize the following signs in the areas of social skills, language and behavior:
Fails to respond to his or her name
Has poor eye contact
Appears not to hear you at times
Resists cuddling and holding
Appears unaware of others' feelings
Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her "own world"
Starts talking later than other children
Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
Does not make eye contact when making requests
Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
Can't start a conversation or keep one going
May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them
Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
Develops specific routines or rituals
Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch
Young children with autism also have a hard time sharing experiences with others. When someone reads to them, for example, they're unlikely to point at pictures in the book. This early-developing social skill is crucial to later language and social development.
As they mature, some children with autism become more engaged with others and show less marked disturbances in behavior. Some, usually those with the least severe impairments, eventually may lead normal or near-normal lives. Others, however, continue to have severe impairments in language or social skills, and the adolescent years can mean a worsening of behavior problems.
The majority of children with autism are slow to acquire new knowledge or skills. However, some children with autism have normal to high intelligence. These children learn quickly yet have trouble communicating, applying what they know in everyday life and adjusting in social situations. An extremely small number of children with autism are "autistic savants" and have exceptional skills in a specific area, such as art or math.
When to seek medical advice
Babies develop at their own pace, and many don't follow exact timelines found in some parenting books. But children with autism usually show some signs of delayed development by 18 months. If you suspect that your child may have autism, discuss your concerns with your doctor. The earlier treatment begins, the more effective it will be.
Your doctor may recommend further evaluation if your child:
Doesn't babble or coo by 12 months
Doesn't gesture — such as point or wave — by 12 months
Doesn't say single words by 16 months
Doesn't say two-word phrases by 24 months
Loses previously acquired language or social skills at any age