Signs of Autism in Toddlers and Infants

With autism, early detection and treatment is critical but what should parents be on the look out for?

The average age for an autism diagnosis is between three and four years old. Yet many parents first become concerned around 18 months old. This age coincides with some vaccinations and has caused many parents to blame the vaccinations for autism. However research over the last few years has indicate that many autistic children show signs of autism in their first year.

So what symptoms of autism should you look for in infants and toddlers?

Firstly, is the child hitting all the normal milestones of development? There is an excellent guide from the Centre of Disease Control that gives all these milestones from birth to five years (Learn the Signs). Your doctor or health professional will be able to give you more information. The difficulty in detecting autism is that some children do develop slower than other so being a few weeks late reaching one particular milestone is nothing to worry about. When a child is late over a range of these milestones then seek advice.

Research in the last few years has highlight other symptoms of autism to watch for in early development. Much of this work has been done by using home videos taken sometime before the child is diagnosed. Often these are from the baby’s first birthday because its an occasion many parents video. The movement and behaviour of the child is analysed and compared to similar videos of children who are not autistic.

What these videos reveal is that even at one year old, autistic children have different patterns of behaviour. They lack or rarely use the ‘social gaze’, the process of looking at someone when giving them attention. ‘Joint Attention’, when parent and child are both giving their attention to the same object or person, is also rarer. These early signs forewarn of the two of most notable symptoms of autism, a lack of empathy for others and a tendency to withdraw into a world of their own.

One of the distinctive symptoms of full blown autism is the child’s patterns of movement. Clumsiness, violent outbursts and repetitive movements are all common in autism. So researchers looked at how the infant moved to see if any signs of later problems can be detected.

One study noted that the autistic child still showed signs of retained primitive reflexes. These reflexes are present at birth and help the infant brain learn to move their body. For example, the grasp reflex is what triggers the curling of a baby’s fingers around an object placed in its palm. Other reflexes help the baby to roll over and learn to crawl. During normal development these reflexes drop away as the infant grows but in some children they are retained. This makes it harder for the infant or child to control their body because moving one limb may reflexively make another move. Making the child appear uncoordinated or clumsy.

There is growing evidence that it is possible to spot autism in infants. It may not be possible to formally diagnose autism at this stage but if the signs are their at infancy it best to assume the worse and begin treatment. Early intervention can make a significant difference to a later development.

Previously on Myomancy: Autism Tests & Diagnosis; Is This Why We Have Primitive Reflexes?

Recommend Reading: First Signs especially their screening tools for Autism

Research: Infants With Autism: An Investigation of Empathy, Pretend Play, Joint Attention, and Imitation [ PDF ]; Early recognition of children with autism: A study of first birthday home videotapes; Early recognition of 1-year-old infants with autism spectrum disorder versus mental retardation; Movement analysis in infancy may be useful for early diagnosis of autism; Infantile Reflexes Gone Astray in Autism [ PDF ]; Toddlers With Autism: Developmental Perspectives.; The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers: An Initial Study Investigating the Early Detection of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders


  • desiree says:

    I am concerned about my 13 month old son. He is showing alot of signs of autism .when he was 9 month he had two eeg test because he twitched and jerked his head.he also had a development test done and it showed poor motor skills.he says ma and da and dont walk.when all his knees he will repeatedly dive on his belly and stiffen up but dont lauph during.he also sits on his butt then go in circles sometimes this behavior last about 20-30 min.he has poor eye contact.dont cuddle. and rarely smiles.i need advice

  • sharrie says:

    i have a 2 1/2 year old boy who i think might be autistic. he shows alot of the sigms of a milder case of autism. ive tried to find help to get him diagnosed at an early age but because hes not a sever case no one will help. here are a few of his signs:
    -seems deaf at time
    -seems to hear sometimes but not others
    -will talk for so many months but now wont
    a little advise will help on who to see (mind you im from IL, quad cities)

  • Kate mcgovern says:

    My daughter is 18 months and we first went to the doctors after her first birthday as she wasn’t responding to her name. The doctors thought it was a hearing problem but after tests this doesn’t appear to be the case. Our doctor referred us to speech and communication therapy as she wasn’t taking at all or communicating in any way. ( pointing, waving etc). At our last review (last week) the doctor says he is concerned she may have autism. I really encourage you as loving parents if you are worried you need to find a doctor who will listen. Sometimes as parents we do worry to much or over react, just like we should as our children are precious gifts that are relying on us to fight for them. I am scared what the future holds, but I feel so blessed that we are getting help so early.

  • Tina says:

    I was just curious about something. I was at my niece’s dancing school today and I was observing this little boy who is about 2-1/2 years old, according to one of the instructors and noticed that he does not like to interact with the others and would rather be by himself or with his mother. The instructor just says “He is not sure if he wants to be here.” Now, just to let you know, my niece has no signs of autism. She is very loving, playful, and loves to be around others. Actually, she talks about the boy and says that she helps him, which I think is very sweet. It is quite obvious that he has a delay issue. And, I also noticed that he was doing something in a repetative motion, I think it was clicking the pen open and close. But, I couldn’t tell. One thing I know is that whatever it was he was opening and closing it repeatedly. He didn’t last long in the class today, but I guess he has his good days and bad days. I think the mother said, “We’ll be back next week and see what happens.” So, my question to you is, “Is he autistic.” It seems like he is off in his own little world and when you try to bring him into your world he gets upset and creates a scene! I felt sorry for the little boy when he got upset. Anyways, just a little curious, that’s all.

  • Kate says:

    To parents of children with autism could you share any “signs” of the disorder that you observed from Birth to 1 years old. I would greatly appreciate your responses.

What are your personal experiences with ADD / ADHD, autism or dyslexia?