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Autism Signs & Symptoms

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can vary in severity of symptoms, age of onset, and the presence of various features such as language and intellectual ability. The manifestations of ASD can differ considerably across individuals. Even though there are strong and consistent commonalities, especially in social interaction, there is no single behavior that is always present in every individual with ASD, and no behavior that would automatically exclude an individual from diagnosis of ASD.

How can I tell if someone I know has autism?

Individuals with ASD interact with others differently. They often appear to have difficulty understanding and expressing emotion and may express attachment in a different manner.

Many individuals with ASD do not develop effective spoken language and rely upon other methods of communicating, such as pointing to pictures or using a tablet computer with special language applications. Others have echolalia, the repeating of words or phrases over and over. Individuals with ASD often have difficulty understanding the nonverbal aspect of language such as social cues, body language, and vocal qualities (pitch, tone and volume).

Individuals with ASD often have a great need for routine and order, which can make them upset if objects in their environment or time schedules change. Children with ASD may not play with toys in the same manner as their peers and may become fixated on specific objects. Persons with ASD have a different reaction to sensory stimuli by seeing, hearing, feeling, or tasting things with more or less intensity than others.

Children with ASD often have a different rate of development, especially in the areas of communication, social, and cognitive skills. In contrast, motor development may occur at a typical rate. Sometimes skills will appear in children with ASD at the expected rate or time and then disappear.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lifelong disability that is generally diagnosed before the age of three years old. However, children are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed until later in life. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests parents consider the following questions:

Does your child…

  • Not speak as well as their peers?
  • Have poor eye contact?
  • Not respond selectively to their name?
  • Act as if they are in their own world?
  • Seem to “tune others out?”
  • Seem unable to tell you what they want, preferring to lead you by the hand or get desired objects on their own, even at risk of danger?
  • Have difficulty following simple commands?
  • Not bring things to you simply to “show” you?
  • Not point to interesting objects to direct your attention to objects or events of interest?
  • Have unusually long and severe temper tantrums?
  • Have repetitive, unusual, or stereotypic behaviors?
  • Show an unusual attachment to inanimate objects, especially hard ones (e.g., flashlight or a chain vs. teddy bear or blanket)?
  • Prefer to play alone?
  • Demonstrate an inability to play with toys in the typical way?
  • Not engage in pretend play (if older than 2 years)?

What to do if you think your child has autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects each individual differently and at varying degrees, which is why early diagnosis is so crucial. ASD is a lifelong disability, but early intervention often contributes to lifelong positive outcomes.

  • Get a diagnosis. If you're concerned, see a doctor who's familiar with ASD. Don't assume the child will catch up.
  • Get help. Education, intervention, and speech therapy are often critical. Contact Easterseals for services or assistance locating service providers in your area.
  • Know your rights. Children with autism can be eligible for early intervention and special education services that are free starting at age 3. Your health insurance may include coverage for the medical services your child needs. Easterseals can help you navigate these systems.
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