How to Tell if Your Child, Toddler or Baby Has Autism

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Blog post updated on 25th April 2022.

Do you ever wonder why your child seems to be behaving differently from others or might be developing differently from their peers? If so, then they could have autism.

Read on to find out about the most common signs of autism in children.

What are the common signs of autism in babies and toddlers?

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Having difficulties or differences with:

  • Responding to their own name
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Smiling back when you smile at them
  • Talking and engaging in conversation
  • Following gestures, for example, not following you such as when you point something out
  • Using gestures to communicate, such as waving hello or goodbye, or pointing
  • Making sounds to get attention
  • Imitating your movements and facial expressions
  • Noticing or expressing empathy at others’ hurt or discomfort
  • Initiating or responding to cuddling
  • Reaching out for you to pick them up
  • Playing with other children and adults or sharing interest and enjoyment with them
  • Developing language skills, such as saying “mama” or “dada”
  • Using one-word sentences
  • Bonding or attaching to their parent(s)
  • Potty training
  • Interpreting emotions in others

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Young children may also:

  • Become extremely upset if they dislike a certain taste, smell, sound, sight, or texture.
  • Use repetitive movements, such as hand-flapping, finger-flicking, or rocking.
  • Not talk as much as other children do, or not talk at all.
  • Repeat their own and other people’s phrases (AKA echolalia).
  • Have frequent tantrums or meltdowns.
  • Exhibit physically aggressive behaviour.
  • Exhibit self-harming behaviour, such as head-banging or skin-picking.
  • Only seem interested in one toy or object.

What are the common signs of autism in older children and teenagers (ages 5 and over)?

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Having difficulties or differences with:

  • Understanding what others are thinking or feeling.
  • Saying how they feel.
  • Making friends and being with others.
  • Interpreting phrases such as, “break a leg”. They may take this very literally.
  • Playing ‘pretend’ games, engaging in group games, imitating others, or using toys in creative ways.
  • Noticing when others talk to them.
  • Sharing interests or achievements with others (such as drawings or toys).
  • Using eye contact.
  • Making physical contact.
  • Taking turns in conversations.
  • Following instructions with more than one or two steps.
  • Reading non-verbal cues, such as body language.
  • Using gestures to express themselves.

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Older children and teenagers may also: 

  • Like a strict daily routine and become upset if it changes.
  • Have a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities.
  • Appear to be disinterested in other people.
  • Prefer not to be touched or cuddled.
  • Have unusual sleeping patterns.
  • Engage in repetitive behaviour, like younger children do.
  • Use formal language instead of slang terms that their peers may use.
  • Place great importance on rules.
  • Develop strong preferences for certain foods, clothes, or objects.
  • Have an unusual tone of voice or speech pattern.

Do girls and boys have different autistic symptoms?

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Although autism is more commonly diagnosed in boys, girls and boys can have different autistic symptoms. These may either be due to biological differences or because of how society raises boys and girls differently.

What are the signs of autism in girls?

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Girls with autism: 

  • Can appear to be passive, withdrawn, dependent on others, uninvolved, or depressed.
  • May cope with social situations better than boys do, perhaps because of how they are raised.
  • Can be more likely to respond to non-verbal communication than boys can.
  • May be more focused and less prone to distraction than boys.
  • Tend to suffer from anxiety more often than boys do.
  • Tend to have interests in subjects such as pop stars, books, animals, and TV.
  • May find alternative groups of friends to those they had in childhood as they enter adolescence

What are the signs of autism in boys?

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Boys with autism:

  • Can be more repetitive and have “limited areas of play” compared to girls.
  • Can have social communication issues that become very challenging early on in their lives, whereas girls are more likely to experience these challenges in adolescence.
  • May behave in a more disruptive manner to gain objects, whereas girls may behave in this manner to get attention according to the Kennedy Krieger report.
  • Tend to be more aggressive than girls with autism.
  • Tend to have interests in schedules, statistics, transportation, and technology.

What should you do if you suspect your child has autism?

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If you’re concerned about your child or think they are displaying symptoms of autism, speak with your GP in the first instance. Your GP will be able to offer expert support and guidance.

Adults with autism

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Many children with autism go on to be successful and passionate adults who pursue careers they love.

Check out our autism pages to make sure you can thrive in your workplace:

What is autism?

What jobs are good for people with autism?

How Do Autism Needs Assessments Work?

NHS Autism

Blog Author

April Slocombe


Neurodivergent
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