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Signs Of Autism in Babies and Toddlers

When you give birth and watch your baby develop, you want everything to be fine, for your baby to grow up healthily and live a normal life. You don’t even want to contemplate the fact that there might be something not quite right with your baby, a mental condition that initially might not be entirely obvious but which might manifest itself a year or two down the line.

About 1% of the world’s population has autism – that equates to about 1 in every 68 births in the United States. So if you think your baby has autism, you may consider yourself and your little one incredibly unfortunate, but noticing the signs and catching the disorder early will benefit your baby a lot.

Autism is a mental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate with others and partake in what we consider to be normal worldly interactions. It can affect a person’s ability to get a job, form relationships and their perception of others and the world as a whole. Although there’s no treatment for autism, noticing the warning signs and starting treatment early can reduce the disorder’s effects.

Since autistic children don’t look disabled, it can be tough to notice the signs, but there are things you can look out for.

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15 Facial Expressions

When you show your baby intimacy or just smile, your baby doesn’t respond. Since your baby is still a baby, it may just mean that your baby’s personality is still developing, that he/she is learning how to respond to your facial expressions and what they mean. But your baby should have learned long before the age of one, that a smile is meant to be warm and comforting, and if that feeling is reciprocated by your baby, he/she should smile back. In the case of autism, a baby might not smile when begin smiled at. This lack of warmth or joyful expressions is a common red flag for autism.

There are also other nonverbal forms of communication that hint to autism. Not picking up facial expressions and understanding what they mean, not using the correct facial expressions when trying to get something across - these are common difficulties for children with autism.

14 Tone of Voice

This is more for recognizing autism in slightly older children, children who can talk. Since autism can debilitate a child socially, speech and language aren’t generally strong points for autistic children, so if your child starts learning to speak at a later age than normal, this could be a sign of autism. For babies, if your baby refrains from making any vocal sound at seven months and is not saying anything, even a word or two, by the age of fifteen months, this could be a warning sign.

When your baby does begin to speak and can string a few sentences together, his/her tone of voice may come across as robot-like – very cold and rigid without any form of emotion. The tone of voice may not match what your child is saying, it may have an odd rhythm to it and may be riddled with grammatical errors. Every child makes mistakes when learning to speak so that’s not the main point here. Just be vigilant and heed the other warning signs when it comes to your child’s speech.

13 Limited or No Speech

As just mentioned, deficits in communication skills are common in children with autism. Speaking may occur later than normal in terms of their natural rate of developmental progression, and when they do speak, it may take a while before they grasp the concept of proper, effective verbal communication. But in some cases, a child may just choose not to speak at all and it could be difficult just to get a child to utter a word or two.

A child with autism may learn how to speak – all be it later than normal – but when they do they may be incredibly reluctant to do so or just not speak at all. This can be incredibly distressing for a parent, and many attribute it to their child just being moody and wanting to be a nuisance. But there are many non-speaking autistic children and adults for that matter, so recognize the warning signs so your child can get treatment and nip it in the bud before the issue progresses to just no speaking and continues throughout your child’s development.

12 Jokes

Not understanding jokes is a common sign of autism. Of course in terms of verbal communication this relates to slightly older children – children who have grasped the concept of humour – but babies can also understand some forms humour. For example, the common peek-a-boo game usually has babies in hysterics – that is hysterical laughter, although it can have the opposite effect and result in hysterical crying. But, I digress. The point here is that things that babies should find funny – whether it’s a game of peek-a-boo or funny faces, cartoons etc. in the case of autism, these things will be met with stonewall silence. This can get rather distressing for parents as well, parents who want nothing more than to see their baby’s face beam up in a smile. But if jokes and humor don’t elicit a response, it could be a sign of autism, so get your baby checked out by a specialist.

11 Eye Contact

Social awkwardness is a common trait amongst autistic children, but you don’t have to wait for your child to grow up and start interacting with others to recognize the warning signs. You don’t have to wait for your child to grow up, to talk, to realise your child may be socially inept. There are things you can look out for at an early age, during infancy and babyhood.

If your baby doesn’t like making eye contact with you, especially when he/she is feeding, it’s a sure sign of autism. Feeding, in particular breast feeding is an intimate time between mother and baby. Baby’s enjoy looking at the loving face of their mother, and eye contact helps promote your baby’s brain development too, so eye contact occurs naturally.

Eye contact is an essential part of pretty much all social situations, so if your baby is reluctant to give eye contact or doesn’t give eye contact at all, notice the signs and notify your doctor.

10 Sarcasm

This is a sign to look out for when your child grows up a bit. Autistic children generally don’t understand the concept of sarcasm. They take everything literally, take thing to heart and could end up getting rather upset, distressed and confused because of things they’ve misinterpreted.

Autistic children also have trouble understanding irony and metaphors; they can’t decipher from the tone of a person’s voice what they’re trying to say, whether they’re being literal in their manner of speaking or sarcastic.

For example, describing someone putting up his hand as “his hand shot up in the air”, may cause an autistic child to become very confused. A child with autism may take this to mean that the person actually shot something into the air.

This misunderstanding of sarcasm can be rather embarrassing and points to autism. Many children also get into hot water when they start attending school because of this issue, so if you notice your child has this trait, tell a specialist as soon as possible.

9 Doesn’t Ask for Help

When babies and children need help with something or want something, they’re generally not shy about letting you know. With children who can talk it’s just a matter of asking, and with babies, they tend to make noises and cry to get your attention.

Autistic babies are generally very quiet, which might seem like a godsend to a stressed-out parent, but if your baby wants something and they don’t let you know, you’ve no way of knowing about it. Babies with autism are very reluctant to make a fuss about anything, because they don’t want any unwarranted attention on them.

When your baby’s a bit older – your child begins to talk and communicate with others in a school setting for example, this sign is a lot easier to spot. Autistic children don’t like raising their hands, speaking in class or asking teachers for assistance. Many parents and teachers brush this off as shyness, but there is a difference; speak to others about it, discuss if this reluctance of asking for help is occurring in combination with other signs such as lack of eye contact and then take action.

8 Doesn’t Respond When You Point to Things

Autism has a huge effect on language and communication skills. But communication isn’t just limited to verbal communication. As a mom, you still speak to your baby, often in a cooing voice, even though he/she doesn’t understand. So what do you do? You point at things in an effort to communicate, and when you do, your baby’s eyes will usually follow to where you’re pointing to.

If your baby has autism, it’s unlikely that pointing will do much good. It may be due to the lack of eye contact, meaning your baby won’t be following what you’re pointing to because he/she just isn’t looking.

Pointing is also a form of non-verbal communication and autistic children have trouble picking up on these non-verbal cues. Your baby may also act unusually to your pointing, and instead of following the direction of your finger, may become distressed.

7 Doesn’t Use Gestures to Communicate

Babies who can’t yet understand the language communicate with their moms using other methods; making noises, crying and pointing/gesturing at things. They may point, they’ll soon mimic your actions and pick up on some common gestures such as a wave goodbye or hello. But autistic children, even autistic babies, communicate very little, if at all.

This lack of non-verbal communication is a common sign of autism in babies and toddlers. Many babies and toddlers with autism fail to reach those key milestones involving communication; many will have a very limited vocabulary, be reluctant to say anything and may never really point or ask for anything. There are parents who bury their heads in the sand and prefer to think that their baby/toddler is shy or lazy, but that’s the wrong way to go about things. Not pointing/gesturing at things is an autism red flag; it may just be that your child is a late developer, but it’s better to get it checked out rather than worry about ‘what ifs’.

6 Wanting to be Alone

Sure different kids develop different personalities. Some are loud and boisterous whereas some are more quiet and reserved. It’s fine to be quiet and natural to be a little shy in certain situations, especially for a kid who’s constantly learning new things in this big wide world. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘a child’s brain is like a sponge which just soaks up new information’, but it can get overwhelming for some. This is why it’s difficult to link wanting to be alone to having a mental disorder, especially with young children. Some kids don’t want to be out and about all day and prefer to spend their days around the house playing video games and whatnot.

Autistic kids revel in social isolation. They’re comfortable in their own bubble and don’t want to let anyone in. Many children get like this when they’re teenagers, so it’s essential to spot the signs and do something about it before your child hits his/her teens. Being a recluse is a sign of autism, but when in social situations, autistic children are often socially awkward and act socially inappropriate.

Not seeking comfort, cuddles, physical contact and warmth is a tell-tale sign of autism in babies.

5 Repetition

As your baby grows, begins to speak and begins to develop his/her own personality, the warning signs, the red flags for autism become far more diverse. One in particular is a very common sign of autism.

Repetition makes an autistic child feel good and puts him/her at ease. This form of repetition is different to just being organized and following a daily routine. In the case of an autistic child, he/she will do just this but will do so rigidly – repetition bordering on OCD.

Repetition may also refer to certain hand gestures and characteristic traits many people may just say are quirky. Hand gestures such as flapping hands, rocking back and forth and tapping certain things over and over again are common signs of autism, and may act to sooth your child and make him/her feel at ease. This repetitive behaviour can become rather obsessive, so notify your doctor if and when you notice the signs.

4 Deep Fascination with Certain Hobbies

This obsession with repetition also relates to hobbies and interests and is a trait of autism that can be noticeable in young children and even babies.

Babies and children often have a favourite toy, a toy that they’re obsessed with, cling to and play with all the time. But with autism it goes deeper than that. An autistic child may have a favourite toy, but very often he/she becomes obsessed and fascinated with something that most other children may deem trivial. Things such as a light switch or a bottle top could give an autistic baby more pleasure than a cuddly toy - that’s just one sign. When your child gets older and develops more interests, these interests tend to be unusual, but an autistic child can become obsessed with them nonetheless. For example, memorizing the TV schedule, statistics or just staring endlessly at an object – autistic children find these things fascinating.

3 Sensory Sensitivity

Autistic children and babies may experience sensory sensitivity – either an over or under sensitivity to certain sensory types of sensory perception such as touch, taste and smell.

This is perhaps one of the reasons that babies with autism don’t like physical contact with their moms – prefer not to be cuddled and mollycoddled because they’re over sensitive to touch and therefore perceive cuddling to be distressing.

But it could work the other way too. Under-sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli could cause problems. It’s not uncommon to find an autistic baby staring for a long period of time directly into a light, or he/she might be burning up, be getting a fever and be in pain but not even cry. Needless to say this could cause a number of issues.

Sounds can also be very distressing to an autistic child. You and I have no problems blocking out small amounts of background noise, but an autistic child could find this unbearably loud which can cause anxiety and in worse case scenarios, actual pain.

2 Naughtiness

Every child throws a temper tantrum now and then, it’s just part of growing up and learning there are rules that have to be followed. But if your child is getting angrier and throwing more tantrums than normal, often over trivial things, something needs to be done. We don’t mean calling in a super nanny or anything like that. It’s about getting to the route of the issue before you attempt to solve it. Think why your child is acting naughty and look at the situation from his/her point of view. Is there a legitimate reason for your child acting out?

Many parents prefer to think that their child is naughty rather than being autistic, and if looking at this one aspect of autism alone, they’re probably right. But like we’ve mentioned, if you think why your child is acting out; is it because he/she just wants to be alone, doesn’t want to interact with others socially and is getting anxiety because he/she isn’t following a routine – and if the reasons can be attributed to the other points mentioned in this article, it could very well be a sure sign of autism.

1 Missing Social, Emotional and Cognitive Milestones

Every parent wants their baby’s development to take a natural route, for their baby to start talking when he/she is meant to, to start crawling, then walking etc.

But if your baby begins to miss many of the key milestones, especially the key social, emotional and cognitive milestone in life, it may mean he/she has autism. It could also mean that your baby is a late developer, but if this is the case, things like eye contact, cuddling, pointing - these things that nearly all babies do, won’t be missing.

Look at the points in this article and be aware of the signs. Autism is a mental disorder but it doesn’t spark the end for your baby – far from it. Notice the signs and notify your doctor early and there are plenty of steps which can be taken to make your autistic child grow up to live a relatively normal life – not a life spent in isolation and closed off from society.

Your baby’s brain has remarkable plasticity so if caught early, autism doesn’t have to have the debilitating effect is has on some people. So if you notice the signs, trust your parental instincts and talk to your doctor.

Sources: Wiley.com, Springer.com, Autism-Society.org,

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