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What are signs of autism in toddlers?

Research suggests that in many children, symptoms of autism emerge during the second half of the first year of life. However, signs of autism in toddlers are generally much more visible.

Still, many children will show symptoms early on. In fact, one-third of parents recognize symptoms or cite concerns before their child’s first birthday, but many diagnoses are not made until their fourth year or later.

If you notice the following signs and symptoms in your toddler, speak with a child psychiatrist or pediatrician. If your child receives an autism diagnosis, you can enter them in early intervention programs to develop their social, communication, and emotional skills.

Early intervention can improve your toddler’s developmental trajectory and give them the best outcome for meeting important milestones. At Therapeutic Pathways, our team of ABA therapists and behavior analysts give children the resources and support to develop appropriately and reduce problem behavior.

Keep reading to learn the common signs of autism in toddlers, then call Therapeutic Pathways at (209) 422-3280 for more information.

Early Signs of Autism

Reduced eye contact

Typically, developing children are curious about the world around them and take cues from their parents for how they should act or behave. They will engage in eye contact with their parents and others around them. In children with autism, eye contact may be significantly reduced. They may focus more on their parents’ mouths and hands than their eyes.

Failure to respond to their name

Around one year of age, typical toddlers will respond to their name by turning or looking at the speaker or responding verbally with small noises or words. Conversely, toddlers with autism may have a delayed response or no response at all.

Lack of imitation and facial expressions

Toddlers are the epitome of the phrase “watch and learn.” Neurotypical toddlers learn to imitate by observing others, particularly their parents’ faces. Imitation (mimicking facial expressions, noises, and behaviors) is really a conversation between the child and parent. Imitation allows toddlers to express interest in their parents or caregiver and things around them and to make social and emotional connections.

This behavior is largely absent among toddlers with autism. They may have difficulty copying their parents’ actions or playing with other children. Because imitation is a vital part of development, many researchers recommend early intervention as a way to teach toddlers with autism how to interact with their environment and people around them.

Prolonged visual attention on inanimate objects

Children usually prefer to look at other people’s faces, while many children with autism prefer to look at inanimate objects. This may be because many toddlers with autism typically prefer non-social stimuli, such as a whirring ceiling fan or a colorful toy.

Passive temperament

Toddlers and children with autism spectrum disorder express atypical social behavior. They may seem aloof or extremely shy, not meeting others’ eyes and keeping to themselves. These behaviors can be described as “passive” – a toddler with autism may not initiate social interaction, but they may respond to it.

In other instances, children with autism may not respond at all.

Extreme reactions to changes in the environment

Change, especially unexpected change, can prove extremely stressful for toddlers with autism. Children with autism prefer routine and structure because it makes them feel safe and secure, while changes in their environment may cause feelings of anxiety or fear.

Just like typically developing toddlers, toddlers with autism may respond to things they don’t like by screaming or throwing a tantrum. However, unlike many typically developing children, toddlers with autism may have this same reaction to seemingly “mild” or “harmless” changes in their environment.

For example, a toddler with autism may have an extreme reaction when visitors whom they’ve never met come to their house.

Early Intervention for Toddlers With Autism

What are signs of autism in toddlers? They are usually spotted in infancy but become more apparent by the age of two. If your toddler exhibits the above symptoms, take them to a child neurologist, psychiatrist, or pediatrician for an evaluation. Once your child has a diagnosis, you can find an early intervention program that will help them develop social and emotional skills.

Early intervention has been proven to help children with autism learn new skills and overcome some challenges. At Therapeutic Pathways, we offer early intervention programs for toddlers and children of all ages. For more information, call (209) 422-3280.