Autism signs and characteristics: checklist for early childhood
Babies and young children develop at their own pace, and in different ways. So, at what point should you question if your child’s development is on track?
From the moment they’re born, children embark on a journey of behaviours and skills called developmental milestones.
These milestones are different for each age group. For babies they might include rolling over or smiling for the first time; while for toddlers, they might include talking or walking.
Each developmental milestone comes with its own ‘average’ range. That is, the typical range in which a child may reach that milestone.
If these milestones are not met in a particular timeframe then a ‘red flag’ may be raised to investigate why.
While there are many reasons why a child might experience differences in their development, sometimes, the reason babies and toddlers will have developmental differences to their peers is because they are on the autism spectrum.
Fast Fact: Parents or caregivers are most likely to be the first to recognise developmental differences in young children, although primary healthcare providers and childcare educators may also identify them.
Signs and characteristics
Because autism is related to certain behavioural signs or characteristics, it can be difficult to recognise autism in a child until they are between 18-22 months of age. For some, signs of autism may not become apparent until they reach school age, or even later in life.
However, research studies have identified that there are some signs and characteristics that parents can look for in the first years of a child’s life.
While they may not be indicative of autism, if a child displays some of these characteristics then it’s wise to take them to see a primary healthcare provider, and possibly a health professional with expertise in autism.
Primary healthcare providers are clinicians who provide the first point of contact within the health system. They include general practitioners (GPs), nurses (including general practice nurses, community nurses and nurse practitioners), allied health professionals, and Aboriginal health workers.
If you have any concerns about your baby or young child’s development, talk to your primary healthcare provider as soon as possible. The sooner you recognise a difference or delay with your child’s development, the sooner you can get help to access appropriate services and support, which can help with future development.
Fast Fact: Some of the signs of autism may be noticed before the age of 1, although a reliable diagnosis by a health professional with expertise in autism most often occur from when the child is 18 months or older.
Note that the information below is just a list of some of the common signs and characteristics of autism. It is unlikely that a child will display all of these characteristics. It is important to remember, only a qualified professional can carry out an assessment for autism.
Early signs of autism in babies (6 months to one year) may include:
- Smiling rarely in social situations
- Unexpected reactions to new faces
- Little or no eye contact
- Doesn’t respond to their name
- Doesn’t turn their head to locate sound or react to loud sounds
- Overreacts to sounds
- Displays a lack of social ‘anticipation’. For example, baby doesn’t reach out their arms to be picked up, or doesn’t seem to understand the game of ‘Peek-a-Boo’.
- Doesn’t use ‘chatter’ or ‘babble’
- Doesn’t use gestures such as pointing or waving in context.
- Dislikes being cuddled or touched
- Displays repetitive and unusual body movements.
Early signs of autism in toddlers up to 24 months may include:
- Does not speak
- Only walks on their toes
- Unable to follow simple verbal instructions
- Doesn’t imitate actions
- Has an intense interest in certain object and gets ‘stuck’ on them, such as constantly flicking a light switch.
- May be very interested in ‘unusual’ objects, such as metal objects.
- Engages in repetitive activities, such as lining up objects.
Early signs of autism in young children up to 36 months may include:
- Has limited speech
- Has difficulty understanding simple verbal instructions
- Has little interest in ‘pretend’ or ‘imaginative’ play
- Shows little interest in other children
- Likes to follow routine and gets easily upset by change.
- Is extremely sensitive to sensory experiences, such as sight, sound, smell and taste.
- Is under-sensitive to sensory experiences such as hot and cold, touch and pain.
ASDetect: Is an app that provides videos of what some of these signs and characteristics can look and sound like and can be a useful tool for parents and health care professionals.
Why should you get an assessment?
It is only natural that you might feel concerned if your baby or child is showing delays with development, or is demonstrating some of the possible signs or characteristics of autism.
However, getting answers sooner rather than later can be a good idea, so you can access supports and services for your child, and yourself.
On a personal level, getting a diagnosis can allow you and your family to have a better understanding of autism and how this may impact your child.
Fast Fact: The most common age of a diagnosis on the autism spectrum in Australia is between three and five years.
Seeking an assessment
If you are concerned about your baby or young child, and want to have them assessed for autism, you have a couple of options:
- Contact your state or territory autism association for information about assessments.
- Make an appointment with your GP or family health nurse. They can conduct a screening test for autism and if your child shows signs of autism they will often then refer your child for an assessment. If you do not agree with the outcome of the screening test you can still refer your child to health professionals with expertise in autism for an assessment.
- Talk to a qualified health professional with experience in the assessment and diagnosis of autism.
You can learn more at Getting a diagnosis for children under 18.
Who will be involved in the assessment?
It will depend on where you go to get an assessment as to who, and how many, professionals will be involved in an autism assessment.
If you go to a private professional, the assessment will generally be completed by one professional such as a Speech Pathologist or Psychologist. In some states, you will be required to see two different types of professionals to complete an autism assessment before a diagnosis of autism can be made. It is best to check with your local autism support service provider about what is required to receive an autism diagnosis in your state or territory. However, if you seek an assessment via a government funded organisation, a range of professionals will generally be involved in any diagnosis.
The following professionals may be involved in an autism assessment in a multi-displinary team according to the National Guideline for the Assessment and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Australia.
- Medical practitioner
- Nurse practitioner
- Occupational therapist
- Social worker
- Speech pathologist
- Child psychiatrist
Important: only professionals that receive additional autism assessment training are able to make an autism diagnosis.
Where to get an assessment
There are both government-funded, and private services available for autism assessments. Sometimes, there will be a longer wait time for government-funded services.
You can find a list of local autism support service providers on our Resources page.
For more information go to Getting an autism diagnosis for children.