Autism Signs in Children: What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Reviewed on 7/19/2016

What Is Autism?

Autistic child at the beach playing alone.

Autism is a wide range or spectrum of brain disorders that is usually noticed in young children. Autism is also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. Autism decreases the individual's ability to communicate and relate emotionally to others. This disability may range from mild to severe. Autism occurs about four to five times more often in boys than girls.

Is Autism a Disease or a Disorder?

Autism is a disorder, not a disease. There are many brain disorders that fall into the autism category such as autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome.

What Does “Spectrum” Mean?

“Spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and severity of the disorder. The three most common disorders on the autism spectrum are autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder- not otherwise specified.

Signs of Autism in Toddlers

A colorful spinning top.

Autism can develop at various ages. Some infants may show early signs of autism while others may develop normally until 15 to 30 months. The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised with Follow-Up (M-CHAT-R/F) is a 2 stage screening tool for parents to assess their child’s risk for autism spectrum disorder. The M-CHAT-R/F provides a scoring sheet for parents to use after completing the assessment.

Autism Symptoms

The following are common symptoms of autism, but non-autistic children may display some of these behaviors:

  • Rocking, spinning, or other repeated movements
  • Avoiding physical contact
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Rocking, spinning, or other repeated movements
  • Delayed speech development
  • Repetitive speaking of words or short phrases
  • Inability to cope with small changes in a daily routine
  • Limited or no interactions with peers

Signs of Autism in Babies

A baby with autism lying in a crib.

Early warning signs and symptoms of autism are recognizable. If parents or doctors are able to diagnosis autism as an infant, treatment can greatly improve a baby’s brain. Signs of autism usually appear between 12 and 18 months, but parents should still be on the lookout for common autism symptoms. Early symptoms may be interpreted as signs of a well-behaved baby because they are quiet, independent, and undemanding.

Behaviors Associated with Autism in Babies

  • Will not make eye contact
  • Will not respond to parent’s voice
  • Will not babble (baby talk) or point by 1 year of age
  • Will not respond to their name
  • Will not smile or laugh in response to others behavior

Signs of Autism in Baby’s Second Year

A toddler with autism looking out of a window.

As some autistic children reach age 2, they may regress or lose language skills. Others may simply have no words by 16 months or no two-word phrases by 2 years of age. Children may only speak the same words repeatedly or they may repeat what they hear verbatim. Other signs of autism are organizing toys in certain ways, as opposed to playing with them. They may also refrain from engaging in make-believe play or engaging with other children. Two-year-olds with autism may also be unable to recognize other people’s feelings or facial expressions.

Other Signs of Autism

Autistic child with poor coordination broke a plate.

Other autism spectrum disorder symptoms are physical problems such as poor coordination while running or climbing, poor hand control, constipation, and poor sleeping. Some children develop seizures. Pica, or the tendency to eat items that are not food, is common in children and adults with autism.

How Is the Brain Affected By Autism Spectrum Disorder?

PET scan of the autistic brain of a four year old.

Children affected by autism have an excess of synapses, or connections between brain cells. This is because there is a shutdown in the normal pruning process that occurs during brain development. A typical pruning process involves eliminating about half of cortical synapses by late adolescence. Cortical synapses occur in the cortex, which is central to thought and processing information from the senses.

Some children with autism have larger than normal brains but findings are inconsistent. MRI scans of some children with autism show abnormal cortical responses and some show other abnormalities. Future advances in brain studies may change our understanding of the brain’s role in autism.

Early Screening for Autism Spectrum Disorder

An autistic child feeling frustrated.

Because autism spectrum disorders range from mild to severe, many children are not diagnosed early. Diagnosing autism may be difficult because there are no medical tests, such as blood tests, that can diagnose children. Therefore, treatments may be delayed for years. Autism can sometimes be detected in children 18 months or younger. Many pediatric doctors can diagnosis children by age 2.

Developmental screening for children is an efficient test to tell if they are learning basic skills when they should. During this exam a doctor might ask the parent some questions or talk and play with the child to see how he/she learns, speaks, behaves, and moves. All children should be screened during their 9, 18 and 24 month well-child doctor visits. Older children are often screened if they seem to fall behind age-related developmental levels.

Autism Diagnosis: Speech Problems

An autistic child's hands on glass.

During developmental screening, a doctor will observe how the baby reacts to the parent's voice, smile, and other stimuli and may ask a few questions about the child's reactions. The Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scale may also be used to evaluate a child’s communication level and help decide if seeking professional care is necessary. Other tests that determine hearing, speech development, and behaviors may be completed to help distinguish autism from other developmental problems.

Autism Diagnosis: Poor Social Skills

A school bus seen through a windshield.

A major part of the diagnosis of autism is determining social skills. Some features of many children with autism are their inability to look another person in the eye, even the eyes of their parents. Children with autism often focus on objects and do so intently, virtually ignoring other people or other stimuli for long time periods. If children with autism do communicate, it is often robot-like without facial expressions or gestures. Ages and Stages Questionnaires can be helpful in evaluating a child’s communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem-solving, and personal adaptive skills.

Autism Diagnosis: Evaluation

A boy taking an autism test.

Although there is no medical test for autism, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation can help diagnosis a child with autism. This evaluation may include looking at the child’s behavior and development and interviewing parents. Hearing and vision screenings, genetic testing, and neurological testing may also be involved in a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. Most clinicians accept the three criteria listed below for diagnosis:

  • Impairments in social interactions
  • Impairments in communication
  • A restricted and repetitive range of interests, behaviors, and activities

Asperger's Syndrome

A boy with autism playing with a toy train.

In 2013, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) changed how Asperger’s syndrome is classified. Asperger’s syndrome is no longer a diagnosis on its own, it is now part of the category autism spectrum disorder. Asperger's syndrome is a “high-functioning” type of autism spectrum disorder. Symptoms of high-functioning autism may include lack of eye contact, awkwardness in social situations, missing social cues, or not showing many emotions. Children may also have normal or superior intelligence but have difficulty in relating to people and making friends. They also tend to focus on specialized tasks.

Autism Treatment: Behavior Programs

An autistic boy with a dog during behavioral therapy.

Treatment of autism is available. Behavioral therapy programs are available from several sources and they are designed to aid people in talking, communicating effectively, interacting with others, and avoiding negative or antisocial behaviors. Behavioral therapy uses positive reinforcement, self-help, and social skills training to improve behavior and communication.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) are treatments available for children with autism. The Autism Society maintains a website and offers a toll-free hotline (1-800-3-AUTISM/1-800-328-8476). This resource provides information and referral services to anyone who requests them.

Autism Treatment: Education

A special needs teacher and an autistic student at school.

Treatment involves educating the child with autism spectrum disorder. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) authorized states to determine how to provide educational services to children younger than 3 years of age. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 requires free and appropriate public education for all children, regardless of the extent and severity of their handicaps.

Amendments to the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1986 extended the requirement for free and appropriate education to children aged 3 to 5 years. Parents are advised to check with their individual school administrators to determine what programs best fit their child.

Autism Treatment: Medication

Medications to help treat autism.

Although there is no medical treatment for autism, there are treatments for some autism symptoms. You and your child's pediatrician should discuss medical therapy before it is administered to be sure the benefits outweigh any risks. The medical agents commonly used are antipsychotic agents like risperidone or aripiprazole. Drugs such as methylphenidate, fluoxetine, anti-seizure medications, and others may help specific symptoms. Close observation is required to monitor the child's response to any medication.

Autism Treatment: Sensory Integration

Colorful streaks of light that may agitate children with autism.

As previously described, children with autism spectrum disorder may be extremely sensitive to various sensory stimuli such as sounds, lights, textures, taste, and odors. Some children may become agitated by touching, hearing, or seeing specific things such as a bell, blinking lights, touching something cold, tasting certain foods, or smelling a specific odor like a disinfectant. Some children can be trained to adapt and thus improve behavior.

Sensory integration therapy assesses the way an individual’s brain processes sensory input. A sensory integration-trained occupational or physical therapist will evaluate the autistic child in order to create a plan that matches sensory stimulation with physical movement, which can improve how the brain processes and organizes sensory information.

Autism and Assistive Technology

An autistic child playing with assistive technology.

Technology has recently given some children with severe autism (patients with autism who are nonverbal) ways to communicate. Assistive technology is any product, item, or piece of equipment that is used by a person with a disability to perform tasks, improve functional capabilities, and become more independent. The assistive technology may be a computer tablet, a computer, or even a phone app with programs especially designed to engage children with autism. For students with severe communication difficulties a device with a speech-generating app or a speech generating device may be highly effective.

Autism and Diet

A boy with autism is eating a healthy meal.

A balanced diet, along with some vitamin supplementation, is advised by clinicians for children with autism spectrum disorders. It is important to have a good diet as some patients show good improvement in symptoms when eating such a diet. Some patients with autism suffer from constipation and others may develop a habit of eating items like dirt or paper. A proper diet may help reduce these autism symptoms.

Even though little research has been done, a gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet is an alternative treatment for children with autism. Many parents of autistic children choose the GFCF diet for their children. The diet eliminates all food containing gluten (found in wheat, barley, and rye) and casein (found in milk and dairy products). Children with autism may have an allergy or high sensitivity to foods containing gluten or casein. Autistic children may also process peptides and proteins in foods containing gluten and casein differently than other people. Benefits of a GFCF diet may include the following:

  • Increased speech and/or language use
  • Improved social interaction
  • Decreased self-stimulating and self-injurious behavior
  • Increases ability to focus
  • Improved sleep and immune function
  • Increases awareness

Effectiveness of a GFCF diet for autism lacks scientific evidence to say whether or not this diet can be helpful.

Unorthodox Autism Treatments

Parent using laptop to research autism treaments.

There is no cure or medication available to treat autism. For this reason many parents are trying complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for their autistic children. However, research on the safety and benefits of these approaches has been much less studied. Do not start any therapy until it is discussed with the child's doctor or medical team because some treatments could be dangerous for your child. In addition to checking with medical personnel, there are national agencies such as the Autism Society of America that can help answer your treatment questions.

Around 70% of autistic children suffer from sleep problems, possibly because children with autism may have a deficiency of melatonin. Low doses of supplemental melatonin may help children with autism get a better night’s rest. Studies have shown that melatonin does not have any side effects.

Children with autism may be suddenly set off by a change in schedule, a noise, or anything else that irritates them. Relaxation techniques such as deep pressure massage or weighted clothing may soothe agitation in autistic children during a meltdown.

What Causes Autism?

A woman holding an ultrasound.

Researchers still do not know exactly what causes autism spectrum disorders. They do know that autism features abnormalities in brain structure or function. Researchers also suggest that some toxins or drugs may play a role. For example, valproic acid, thalidomide, and infection exposure during pregnancy increases autism risk in the infant.

Is Autism Genetic?

Genetics may play a significant role. Autism occurs more frequently in certain families and in patients with other genetic problems such as fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, congenital syndrome, and untreated phenylketonuria. There is no one single gene that has been identified as causing autism, but there tends to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities in many families. Some children may be born with a susceptibility to autism, but the trigger that causes autism is unknown

Vaccines Don't Cause Autism

An autistic child drawing a rainbow.

There is no link between childhood vaccines and autism spectrum disorders. The CDC completed nine studies which concluded that there is no connection between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. Thimerosal has been removed or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines, except for some flu vaccines.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Siblings

Autistic siblings in a bedroom.

Autism spectrum disorders diagnoses have increased over the years. Researchers have found that autism runs in families and younger siblings of an autistic sibling have an 18.7% risk of also having autism. Identical twins have the highest percentage of autism occurrence, about a 75% chance that both will develop autism if one twin has autism. As previously mentioned, boys are about four to five times more likely to develop autism.

Autism Accommodation in School

Colored pencils.

Children with autism are given accommodations and assistance in schools. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that all eligible children receive a free appropriate public education that meets their unique needs. Students with disabilities are entitled to experience the “least restrictive environment” (LRE). School districts are required to educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms with non-disabled peers.

Support is usually provided to autism students in the form of a specially trained classroom or one-on-one paraprofessional, adapting curriculum, visual support, etc. However, parents may feel that a regular classroom environment is not suitable for their child. In this case, the student may be introduced to the mainstream environment in small and successful increments and build up to longer periods of participation.

Special education services also provide support for students with autism spectrum disorder by following the Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP explains the student’s needs and how they will be met as well as their strengths and weaknesses, measurable goals and objectives.

Thriving With Autism

Graduates holding degrees.

Autism spectrum disorders do not necessarily mean your child cannot lead an independent and useful life. People with early treatment and mild-to-moderate symptoms can even graduate from college or graduate schools. Others with below-average abilities may still be able to do specialized jobs and live independently or in group homes. The key to autism treatment is early recognition of the signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders in infants and young children. The following are tips for families with autistic children:

  • Their senses are out of sync- ordinary sights, sounds, tastes, and touches are perceived differently
  • Give clear, simple directions
  • They interpret language literally- idioms, puns, nuances, inferences, metaphors, and sarcasm may not make sense
  • Be on alert for body language cues
  • Visual support may help in daily tasks
  • Help them socially interact
  • Identify what triggers their meltdowns
  • Be patient and love them unconditionally

Autism Signs in Children: What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

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