Early Signs of Autism: What To Look For

According to the National Autism Center, there are several early signs of Autism to look for:

  • no social smiling by 6 months
  • no one-word communications by 16 months
  • no two-word phrases by 24 months
  • no babbling, pointing, or meaningful gestures by 12 months
  • poor eye contact
  • not showing items or sharing interests
  • unusual attachment to one particular toy or object
  • not responding to sounds, voices, or name
  • loss of skills at any time

Autism Symptoms

The CDC has a great wealth of resources to get more in-depth information. If you suspect that your child is on the spectrum, don’t worry. There is so much help out there if you know where to look, and parenting autistic children–while certainly challenging–is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

My son’s baby and toddler years were rough. He cried often and demanded attention. When he was still an infant, he would lie on his back, transfixed by the ceiling fan. Sometimes he would scream for no particular reason; it seemed as though just to hear something.

When my son was mobile, he literally never stopped. He crashed into things, grabbed everything, and often threw toys. He often bit and pinched when playing with other children.

When we went in the grocery store, it felt like a ticking time-bomb–usually about 20 minutes–until he had a total meltdown and I had to escape with what groceries I was able to snag.

The screaming continued into his toddler years. The erratic motion continued. He continue to handle objects and toys roughly and not in the way they were “meant” to be handled. He lined up his cars in perfect rows. He had meltdowns at every transition, and generally could not handle change.

Accepting Autism and Getting Help

It seems painfully obvious when I write this all out that something was up, but it wasn’t as clear in my day-to-day. For one, I had virtually no experience with other children. Secondly, there were plenty of moments when he exhibited very non-spectrum behaviors. He would make eye contact, he would snuggle, he would laugh at my silly faces or when I bounced him up and down.

And of course, these “typical” behaviors made it easier to rationalize the other ones away. Just because your child likes order doesn’t mean he or she is on the spectrum. But all the signs taken together began to add up. 

I will never forget the day I truly saw it. My son was two and a half. It was fall, and my son, his father, my sister, and I went to a local farm that was hosting a pumpkin patch. There were animals, rows and rows of pumpkins, a corn maze, and trains–my son’s absolute favorite thing.

He was immediately overstimulated with everything going on. I prodded him to pet the animals–he refused. I encouraged him to pick a pumpkin–he resisted. And finally, I was practically begging him to ride the train.

I was so attached to having a “normal, good time” that I was missing all of his communication with me–he was utterly overwhelmed by the throngs of people, the noisy band, the chugging and somewhat intimidating large metal train. He finally had a meltdown right there on top of a bale of hay.

After he calmed down, he simply sat and watched the train go around and around and around. I don’t know how many times. He refused to do anything else.

Life on the Spectrum

My sister, who had worked with autistic children quite a bit as an ABA therapist, pointed out what we all knew; my son was on the spectrum.

I felt a surge of anxiety at acknowledging this fact. My sister assured me that we could get support, and the earlier the better. 

That’s when we started our journey toward diagnosis, though he wouldn’t officially receive one until he was five. There are still times when it hurts to think that I waited so long to get help, that I thought maybe we could fly under the radar because he was so “borderline”, and that maybe living without the labels would be better for him.

The thing is, depending on where you live, there are typically more free resources available for younger children than older, and early intervention is key. Again, not to change them–but to support them, and you. 

In retrospect, I’d encourage anyone who thinks that their child may be on the spectrum to seek help immediately, not because there is something to “fix” but because learning how to best to relate to a child on the spectrum can enrich a relationship that is undoubtedly challenging at times. 

I’m still learning how to love and live with my son the best possible way I can, but starting the journey earlier would have set me up with many more tools and given us more time in those precious early years. 

That said, I still believe we are making progress every day, and my goal is to help my little guy find his place in the world. I know that, with the right support, he can thrive and share the amazing, sweet, sensitive, quirky, and brilliant child he is. 

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