Spotting the early signs of autism in young children can be hard if you’re not an autism expert. Many of these signs are common to all young children but they are seen more often in children who have autism.
We’ve listed here some common red flags for autism – if your child shows some of these then it’s time to check in with a qualified professional.
We also list typical developmental milestones which may be used as a guide to gauge a child’s development. If there are any concerns about a child’s development, or if there is a loss of any skills at any age, talk to a doctor as soon as possible.
By end of 12 months
- Watches faces intently, responds to other people’s expressions of emotion
- Smiles, imitates some facial expressions, follows moving object with eyes
- Begins to babble, imitates sounds and words, brings hand to mouth
- Has single words like “dada”, repeats sounds or gestures for attention
- Turns head toward direction of sound, responds to own name
- Pushes down on legs when feet placed on a firm surface; raises head and chest when lying on stomach
- Smiles at mother or primary care-givers voice, prefers them over all others
- Can sit up without assistance, can pull self up to stand, walks holding on to furniture
- Waves ‘bye-bye’ and points to objects
By 24 months
- Walks alone, with support can negotiate stairs and furniture, carries and pulls toys while walking
- Has several single words by 15 to 18 months; uses simple phrases by 24 months
- Imitates behaviour of others, excited about company of other children
By 36 months
- Uses 4-5 word sentences, understands most sentences and instructions
- Imitates adults and playmates, expresses affection openly, separates easily from parents
- Sorts objects by shape and colour
- Plays make believe
- Climbs well, runs, kicks a ball, negotiates stairs unaided
By end of 12 months
- Does not pay attention to or frightened of new faces
- Does not smile, does not follow moving object with eyes
- Does not babble, laugh and has difficulty bringing objects to the mouth
- Has no words
- Does not turn head to locate sounds and appears not to respond to loud noises
- Does not push down on legs when feet placed on a firm surface
- Does not show affection to primary caregiver, dislikes being cuddled
- Does not crawl, cannot stand when supported
- Does not use gestures such as waving or pointing
By 24 months
- Cannot walk by 18 months or walks only on his toes, cannot push a wheeled toy
- Does not speak; does not imitate actions, cannot follow simple instructions
- Does not appear to know the function of common household object such as a telephone by 15 months
By 36 months
- Very limited speech, does not use short phrases, has difficulty in understanding simple instructions
- Has little interest in other children, has difficulty separating from mother or primary care-giver
- Difficulty in manipulating small objects
- Has little interest in ‘make-believe’ play
- Frequently falls, has difficulty with stairs
Screening tools and tutorials
There are some great screening tools and tutorials to help parents and carers spot the early warning signs for autism. Below are the three we highly recommend. Please be mindful that they are just screening tools, and not a diagnosis.
These screening tools are a great place to start, particularly if you are unsure what the early warning signs of autism look like.
Once you have completed the assessments, you should always discuss the results with a medical professional. It’s also a good idea to do the assessments more than once, at different stages of your child’s development.
This is a free app that empowers parents and caregivers to assess the social attention and communication behaviours of their children younger than 2½ years (between 11 and 30 months).
This video-led self-assessment app is based on comprehensive, rigorous, world-class research conducted at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre
The app guides parents and carers through each assessment using a combination of videos and questions, as well as activities that you can do with your child.
Once you have completed an assessment, you receive both an on-screen result of either ‘low’ or ‘high’ likelihood of autism, as well as a comprehensive formal assessment results email.
Early signs of autism tutorial Kennedy Krieger Institute
This free 9-minute video tutorial on ASD behavioural signs in one-year-olds. The tutorial consists of six video clips comparing toddlers who show no signs of ASD to toddlers who show early signs of ASD.
Each video is presented with voice-over explaining how the specific behaviours exhibited by the child, as they occur on screen, are either indicative of ASD or typical child development.
Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers – Revised
The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, is a 2-stage parent screening tool to assess for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The first stage being the M-CHAT-R, and second stage being a follow up if required using M-CHAT-F.
The M-CHAT-R/F is an autism screening tool designed to identify children 16 to 30 months of age who should receive a more thorough assessment for possible early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or developmental delay.