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See The Signs

QUICK TIP: We recommend you see the learning course Detecting Autism at an Early Age in order to learn more about autism prior to using this feature.

The importance of seeing the signs of autism early, before age 3, cannot be overstated. If autism is detected at early ages, research shows that intensive therapy can change the course of a child’s life.

You might sense that something isn't right with your child (for example, you have trouble getting your child's attention, or can't get the child to respond by name), but you are not sure if what you are seeing is part of typical development or a sign that something is wrong. After all, toddlers can be unpredictable and changeable.

Well Child Lens has developed specific sets of videos to guide you through the first three years and provide vivid examples of the kinds of behavior you should see, what it means if a child is missing milestones, and how to compare typical and atypical toddler behaviors.

Remember that no single warning sign (such as "lack of eye contact") is enough to determine if a child is at risk of an autism spectrum disorder, just as no single sign of typical development (such as "good eye contact") is enough to rule out autism.

If your child is between 16 and 30 months, screen your child and be sure to discuss any concerns you might have with your child's pediatrician as soon as possible.

Early Warning Signs

Now that you are familiar with typical developmental milestones, you can more easily recognize when your child does—or doesn’t—achieve them. In fact, the very first warning signs of autism are often when a child is missing a number of typical milestones.

Along with missing milestones, a child at risk for autism may also begin to show some of the visible symptoms of autism that often develop at later ages. Well Child Lens has organized the Early Warning Signs (both missing milestones and visible symptoms) into two main categories:

Social Communication and Social Interaction

Deficits in social communication and social interaction are often warning signs for autism or developmental delay. Though children may begin to communicate and interact with their parents and others at slightly different ages, persistent deficits in multiple areas of communication and interaction can be a sign that a child needs further evaluation. We have organized the Social Communication and Social Interaction examples into the three categories you see on the right hand side. Click on any category for a detailed description and a variety of video examples to help you see the behavior in context.

Social Emotional Reciprocity

Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

Non-verbal Communicative Behaviors

Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

Understanding & Maintaining Relationships

Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative paly or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

Restricted and Repetitive Patterns of Behavior or Interests

Children at risk for autism will often have restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior and interests that may seem strange or idiosyncratic. These are often the more visible signs of autism with which you might be familiar. For instance, a child who consistently lines up toys or objects, repeats the same word or phrase over and over again, or has an insistence on the same routine, pattern, or behavior. We have organized these behaviors into the four categories you see on the right hand side. Click on any category for a detailed description and a variety of video examples to help you see the behavior in context.

Stereotyped Motor Movements and Speech

Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).

Routines, Sameness, Rituals

Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).

Preoccupations -Interests or Objects

Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).

Sensitivity to Sensory Input

Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).


Compare The Signs

This set of learning videos uses documentary footage and expert commentary to compare a typically developing child with a child on the autism spectrum. A close comparison of children illustrates that a well-trained eye can detect subtle differences in behavior, helping you distinguish between typical and atypical toddler behaviors.

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