How Do You Know if Your Toddler Has Autism?
Autism can be a scary word. Unfortunately, it is a scary word that gets a lot of use nowadays as more children than ever are being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). But, as a parent, it can be hard to see the signs when you spend all day, every day with your little one.
So how do you know if your toddler has autism?
Mamas, let's be clear about a couple of things before we get into this discussion:
- Every child is different and develops at different times.
- Just because your child exhibits a symptom of ASD doesn't necessarily mean they are autistic.
- Certain symptoms can be confused with your child's personality or temperament.
- If you feel that your child is exhibiting symptoms of ASD, you should consult with your child's pediatrician to be referred to a specialist.
So, with all that fun stuff out of the way, let's talk about ASD. With my experience working in autism treatment programs, preschools, and elementary schools, I've worked with children as young as 18 months old and up to 10 years old. I have seen a wide range of symptoms, different levels of severity, and different treatment options for kids with ASD. In my limited experience, I feel confident in saying that no two cases are the same.
When you're looking for signs of autism, it's important not to psych yourself out or look for something that isn't there; this is a common mistake that a lot of parents make when they're trying to be proactive. Do your best to let your child develop at their own speed, but do be mindful of the age ranges for certain behaviors to gauge where your child is. This, along with consulting your doctor, are always going to be more helpful to you (and your child) than comparing your child to other children, listening to other parents' opinions on the subject, or thinking that every time your child isn't performing every task as soon as they are developmentally capable that they are developmentally delayed.
When You'll Start Seeing Signs and What to Look for
Toddlers generally start to show symptoms between 12-18 months, but symptoms can develop sooner for some children. If you are doing your best to monitor your child's development, you may notice that they aren't responding to certain social cues or hitting developmental milestones. This is usually a parent's first impression that their child may have autism. The signs or symptoms that will tip you off will vary based on age, gender, and severity, which can make it difficult for parents when keeping up with what is developmentally appropriate for their child.
Common signs include avoiding eye contact, lack of social skills/interactions/empathy, repetition in speech, behaviors, or play, limited interests, aversions to sensory stimulations like loud noises or certain foods, and/or repetitive flapping, rocking or swaying.
Helpguide.org published a piece wherein they provided a list of developmental red flags. Hopefully this can help you stop overanalyzing every move your little one makes.
By 6 months old: No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions.
By 9 months old: No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions.
By 12 months old: Lack of response to their name. No babbling or “baby talk”. No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving.
By 16 months: No spoken words.
By 24 months: No meaningful two-word phrases that don’t involve imitating or repeating.
Keep in mind that you can always reach out to your child's pediatrician between their well-child checkups if you are concerned about your child's development in anyway. Depending on the sign/symptom, your doctor may want want to hold off on an ASD screening and monitor the behavior to see if your child just needs a little more time for certain things (i.e., speech).
Severity Makes a Difference
This is an important reminder for parents: the severity and consistency of the sign/symptom make a big difference in a diagnosis for autism. When working with preschool children in an ASD treatment program, it was common for parents to bring their children in when they were younger if the behaviors were more severe. For example, if their child resisted changes in routine, interacting with anyone other than mom or dad, or threw enormous, uncontrollable tantrums when they needed to leave the house, parents were more likely to seek treatment.
Something that I like to say in my home is, "Until it's a problem, it's not a problem." Yeah, I know that sounds kind of ridiculous. But what I'm trying to get at is that most things concerning our children's development are a non-issue until it becomes a consistent hinderance to their daily lives. I think this is also a time to mention a parent's intuition/gut feeling in regard to their kids. If you feel like something is off, contact their doc! If you feel like maybe they'll snap out of it/get the hang of it, then trust yourself.
What to do Next
Early diagnosis and intervention are always beneficial when it comes to any treatment, and the same goes for children being treated for ASD. Your pediatrician will probably be your first resource if your child is a toddler, or if they aren't enrolled in a preschool program. If they are in preschool, their teacher may be the one to recommend a screening. Most states have an early intervention program for autism screenings that you can reach out to if you want to get your child tested. If your child is in school, you can often go through the screening process through the school district.
Something to keep in mind is that if it will make you feel better to have your child screened, then don't put it off! Getting the test can only help! As always, if you're concerned, keep track of milestones your child hasn't reached to let your doctor know, and you can keep a list of words/phrases that you can use to show your child's pediatrician or the specialist performing the ASD screen.