Autism first signs: a checklist for primary school age children
School can be a busy environment for children. There are generally long, unstructured days, lots of verbal information to process, other children to navigate interactions with, boisterous playground activity to negotiate and different sights, sounds, smells and noises to process.
For some children – particularly those on the autism spectrum – these experiences can be challenging and sometimes overwhelming.
Some children on the spectrum are often diagnosed during their primary school years, when it becomes more obvious that their communication, social interaction and behavioural traits are different to those of their peers.
Children on the spectrum may find it challenging to make friendships, take part in conversations or find common interests with other children.
You may have noticed a few ‘red flags’ in your child’s development in their pre-school years, and may now have continuing or new concerns about behaviours you are seeing, or have been told by other parents or teachers.
But how do you know what ‘typical’ development is, or development that might signal your child is on the autism spectrum?
Signs and characteristics
There are a number of traits or characteristics that may make you question if your child is on the spectrum.
These signs cover a range of human behaviour, from social communication and social interaction, to restricted, repetitive and sensory processing.
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, and it’s important to remember, only a qualified professional can carry out an assessment for autism.
Social communication signs
Children on the spectrum will often communicate differently in social situations. These differences may be verbal or non-verbal. For example, your child may:
- Have issues with conversation. They may dominate the conversation or have trouble ‘taking it in turns’ when talking. Some children may find it hard to answer questions about themselves.
- Really focus on a certain subject and want to talk about it….a LOT! They may find it difficult to talk about subjects other than those they are interested in.
- Find it hard to read non-verbal social cues, such as body language or tone of voice. For example, a child might not realise another child is teasing them with sarcasm, or they might not realise that another child’s face is showing sadness or anger.
- Have trouble negotiating the unwritten rules of friendship.
- Want to dominate play and have trouble letting others have a go.
- Prefer to hang around with children much younger than themselves, or prefer spending time with adults.
- Be rigid in following rules – both in the classroom and the playground.
- Be confused during conversations. For example, they might take things literally or not comprehend language.
- Have trouble making and using eye contact.
- Use speech in unusual ways. For example, they may speak in a monotone, with an accent, or in a very proper and formal way, or not at all.
- Find it hard to follow anything but a very simple set of instructions with one or two steps.
- Show a limited range facial expressions, mismatched facial expressions, or express few emotions.
- Prefer solo play, rather than joining in with others.
- Have few or no real friends.
- Find the concept of ‘personal space’ difficult and get physically very close to others.
Children on the spectrum will often display unique behaviours. These may include:
- An obsession with unusual hobbies or objects. For example, they may obsessively memorise basketball results, but have no interest in the game itself; or keep mental lists of car registration plates. Or they might collect chewing gum wrappers or want to carry a certain toy around everywhere with them, even as they get older.
- Repetitive behaviour, such as lining up or arranging toys in a certain way.
- Loving routine and getting easily upset when plans change suddenly and routines are not followed.
- Being very sensitive to sensory experiences. For example, they may refuse to wear anything ‘scratchy,’ hate loud noises or only want to eat foods with a certain texture. Sometimes the child will react violently if they experience sensory ‘overload’.
- Being under-responsive to sensory experiences. For example, keeping a jumper on when it’s very hot, or not reacting or noticing when pain is experienced, such as a cut.
- Unusual body movements. This could include repeated rocking, hand flapping or hand clapping.
- Unusual noises. Your child might repeatedly squeal, grunt or clear their throat.
- Feeling anxious or upset if they experience a new social situation.
- Unique sleeping patterns. For example, waking up repeatedly at a certain time each night, or staying awake long after they have gone to bed.
- Regularly resisting or refusing to go to school if they feel overwhelmed or upset.
You may recognise many of the traits listed above in your child, or just a few.
It’s only when enough of these signs are present – and your child’s health professional has ruled out other possible causes – that your child might be referred for an autism assessment.
If you have any concerns, it’s best you seek further information. The best place to start is with a health professional, such as your family GP or child and family health nurse.
They will be able to refer your child to an appropriate professional for further assessment.
Why should you seek an autism assessment for your child?
If you think that your child might be on the autism spectrum, it is a personal decision to seek an autism assessment.
For some parents it can be emotional identifying that your child may be on the autism spectrum, and can be daunting thinking about the process to get an autism assessment done.
Often well-meaning friends and family are quick to say things like: ‘just take a wait and see approach…things might change with age’. It is important to remember that you know your child the best, and if you have concerns, it is best to share these with a qualified professional to gather information to shape your decision.
Some of the benefits of seeking an autism assessment sooner rather than later, can include:
- Your child (and you) may get the help and support you might need earlier.
- Your child’s school and teaching staff may have a better understanding of your child’s needs – allowing them to support them more effectively.
- Your child may have a greater sense of self-worth if they understand themselves better.
- Your child may have increased confidence knowing they are part of a larger group of kids with autism!
Seeking an assessment
If you are concerned about your child’s development, 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 them 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.
Where to get an assessment
There are both government funded and private services available. 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.