Signs and Symptoms

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Early indicators that a baby might be on the autism spectrum include a lack of pointing and talking, an absence of interest in games, and a sense of withdrawal or unresponsiveness. If an infant shows a few of these signs, it doesn’t mean he must have autism. An 18-month-old who has not yet begun to talk could be autistic, but he also might have trouble hearing, be under-stimulated or just slower to develop language.

Autism involves impairment in three distinct areas of development. The first is social skills. Young children with autism have limited eye contact and facial expressiveness and limited body language. They don’t seek the attention of parents in the usual way and become cut off from social learning.

The second area of impairment is language. Children with autism speak mainly to get needs met, and much less often to have conversations, or simply do not talk much at all. They may also have trouble engaging in make-believe and even simple physical play with peers.

Activities and interests form the third area of impairment. Children with autism may flap their hands, rock back and forth, and have other repetitive movements. They can be intensely interested in the senses, say the feel or smell of a given toy. Those with milder forms of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, may fixate on a narrow topic like vacuum cleaners or traffic signs.

If you feel that your child shows a number of these signs, you may want to mention your concerns to your pediatrician. If the doctor thinks your child might have autism, usually he will be referred to specialists—an autism clinic, developmental disorder team, clinical psychologist or neurologist—who can screen him and, if needed, conduct a full diagnostic assessment.