Autism Signs

Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development — social interaction, language and behavior.  But because autism symptoms and severity vary greatly, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills.  In most cases, though, children with severe autism have marked impairments or a complete inability to communicate or interact with other people.

Some children show signs of autism in early infancy.  Other children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life, but then suddenly become withdrawn or aggressive or lose language skills they've already acquired.

According to Autism Speaks, the following "red flags" may indicate your child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder.  If your child exhibits any of the following, please don’t delay in asking your pediatrician or family doctor for an evaluation:


Red Flags

  •     No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months or thereafter
  •     No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months
  •     No babbling by 12 months
  •     No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  •     No words by 16 months
  •     No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  •     Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

The Mayo clinic offers a more detailed list of some common autism symptoms:

Social skills

  •     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
  •     Doesn't ask for help or request things


  •     Doesn't speak or has delayed speech
  •     Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
  •     Doesn't 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
  •     Doesn't appear to understand simple questions or directions


  •     Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
  •     Develops specific routines or rituals and becomes disturbed at the slightest change
  •     Moves constantly
  •     May be fascinated by details of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car, but doesn't understand the "big picture" of the subject
  •     May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch, and yet oblivious to pain
  •     Does not engage in imitative or make-believe play
  •     May have odd food preferences, such as eating only a few foods, or craving items that are not food, such as chalk or dirt
  •     May perform activities that could cause self-harm, such as headbanging

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children receive autism screening at 18 and 24 months of age.  Two popular tools for use in developmental surveillance are the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT) and the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT).  Recent research published in the Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health (Sunita and Bilszta, J. L. (2012), Early identification of autism: A comparison of the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers and the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1754.2012.02558.x) finds that the M-CHAT has slightly better sensitivity and specificity compared to CHAT, and is preferable to use as a developmental surveillance screening instrument.

Autism Speaks offers the M-CHAT online.  This simple screening tool includes only 23 questions and can be completed quickly.