Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorder, meaning there is a large degree of variation in the way it affects children. Every child on the autistic spectrum has a developmental impairment that changes the way they behave, communicate, or interact with others. But the degree of disability and the combination of symptoms is unique from child to child. Learning about the signs and symptoms will help you better understand your child and avail necessary treatments.
How do you determine whether the poor behavior is the result of autistic symptoms or if it’s merely misbehavior? Many of the quirks that are typical of autistic children might be deemed disciplinary problems in other kids.
The spectrum of warning signs of autism become broader and more evident as children age. Most of the symptoms typically revolve around impaired speech, social skills, nonverbal skills, and inflexible behavior. Some autistic children only have mild impairments, while others have more obstacles to overcome.
Children with autism are almost always likely to either overreact or underreact to light, sound, smell, and touch stimuli.
Sensory regulation is essential for psychological and physical comfort. Sensory dysregulation is a significant reason why children with autism tend to meltdown or unable to cope with typical situations.
Children with autism may have unusually sensitive senses. Your child might get upset if too much is happening around her, or if she finds a particular noise overwhelming, or it’s too bright for her. Your child may also cover the ears while bolting from a crowded and noisy room. Sudden noises such as a bell ring can be upsetting. Incessantly touch particular surfaces or objects.
Even more challenging, children with autism struggle to “just ignore” sensory information as it floods in. So, unlike their peers with typical neural systems, children on the spectrum may not be able to, for example, cover their ears when people are talking to them.
Autistic children with severe sensory overload may bang their heads, pick their skin, or bite themselves unintentionally.
Contrastingly, some children on the spectrum are hypo-sensitive to sensory inputs.
In some cases, autistic children crave physical sensation. This can lead to self-stimulation (“stimming”). They flap hands, flick fingers, rock back and forth, or twirl repetitively to calm themselves.
At times, your child may ignore people who are speaking to them, even to the point of appearing deaf.
Social Communication Challenges
Social interaction can be awkward for children with autism. Many kids on the spectrum seem to prefer to live in their world, aloof and detached from others. Difficulties with communication can make it challenging for a child with autism to understand when his actions may be hurtful because they may not recognize how their behavior is likely to affect others.
Many children with autism struggle with speech and language comprehension.
They may speak in an abnormal tone of voice with a robotic or rhythmic pitch. Or may not speak at all.
Echolia. Repeat the same words or phrases – often without communicative intent.
They don’t understand simple statements or questions. Takes the conversation to literally – misses undertones of jokes, sarcasm, and metaphors.
Responds to your question by repeating it, rather than answering it.
The child might have no other way of telling you their thoughts, wants, and needs. Head slamming or self-harm may be a way of hinting they are frustrated or anxious.
Unable to stay on topic when talking or answering questions.
He doesn’t respond to his name, despite having normal hearing.
Has difficulty communicating needs or desires, which leads to frustration.
A child with autism has little interest in interacting with others, including children of a similar age. They prefer to be alone and is disinterested or unaware of what’s going on around them. Playing, connecting, or sharing with other children doesn’t seem to interest them. They don’t engage in group games or imitate others.
Autistic children have trouble picking up on subtle nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. This makes the “give and take” of social interaction difficult.
They might find it challenging to observe and imitate others’ actions. They tend to avoid eye contact during conversation.
He has trouble understanding feelings or talking about them.
Rarely uses appropriate gestures, body language, or facial expressions when communicating.
Nonverbal autism. Nearly a third of children on the autism spectrum barely speak, if at all.
Children with autism are often restricted and inflexible in their behavior.
They flap hands, flick fingers, rock back and forth, or twirl repetitively to calm themselves.
Some research suggests that stimming stimulates the nervous system and provides pleasure from the release of beta-endorphins in the brain. Beta-endorphins are responsible for producing dopamine, which increases pleasure sensations. Some suggest that stimming may counteract a lack of sensitivity by stimulating the sensory system. Others indicated that stimming might have a calming effect, focusing attention away from an overwhelming experience.
Stimming is a protective response to overstimulation, in which children calm themselves by blocking less predictable stimuli, to which they have a heightened sensitivity. It may also be a way to relieve anxiety and other negative emotions.
Stimming can provide comfort to children with autism. They can vary in intensity and type.
Children with severe autism may bang their heads, pick their skin, or bite themselves unintentionally.
About half of autistic children engage in self-injurious behavior at some point.
Self-injury can be particularly frightening because it seems to violate our basic instinct of self-preservation. It also profoundly challenges parents’ desire to protect their offspring.
There might be several factors causing your child to self-injure:
- They feel they are not listened to
- They have been bullied
- They have been told off
- They are feeling unwell
- They have memories of abuse
Play in a repetitive or seemingly unimaginative way – unusual attachments to toys or objects such as car wheels, keys, or rubber bands. Obsessively arranges things in a particular order. Spend prolonged periods watching moving objects such as a ceiling fan, or focusing on the wheels of a toy car.
Prefers to follow a rigid routine. Resistant to changes in routine and environment. Insists on taking a specific route to a playground or school.
Preoccupation with a specific subject of interest, often involving numbers and symbols. They have an academic interest in memorizing and reciting facts about train schedules, sports statistics, or maps.
Children with autism may have emotional difficulties. For instances, your child may start to cry or yell hysterically for no apparent reason.
When stressed, your child may exhibit disruptive or aggressive behavior. They may hit others, break things, or harm themselves.
Symptoms of High-Functioning Autism
Asperger’s syndrome is a high-functioning and mild form of autism. Most cases are diagnosed at approximately 11 years old.
While children with Asperger’s syndrome have normal cognitive abilities and language development, they struggle with social functioning. Specifically, they have difficulty interpreting and responding to social cues and emotions appropriately.
The symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome are often not apparent until early adulthood.
Difficulty with Change
The world can seem a very unpredictable place for children with Asperger syndrome. They prefer to know what’s going to happen next – a rigid routine, play the same games, eat the same foods, etc. An abrupt change may sometimes cause upset or anxiety. They may cope better if you prepare them for the changes in advance.
Extreme focus on a topic of interest
Some children with Asperger’s syndrome are so intensely focused on a particular topic of interest despite attempts to redirect the child’s attention. This issue can become apparent when they’re interacting with other children who have different interests. The child may switch topics for no apparent reason, often in an attempt to steer the conversation towards their single area of interest.
It may be challenging for a child with Asperger’s syndrome to adapt to various sensory inputs. They may over- or underreact to taste, smell, sound, or touch. This can cause anxiety.
They may have a very literal understanding of language and think people mean exactly what they say. Unable to understand irony, humor, or sarcasm – leading to frustration.
They are unable to interpret body language or facial expressions.
They may appear distant, uninterested, or aloof. Some children may want to interact with their peers and make friends but may be unsure how to go about it.
This social ineptness can make it challenging for them to navigate the social world.
The child may speak in a scripted or robotic manner with a lack of rhythm or intonation. The tone may be loud or high-pitched.
Does not make eye contact or tend to stare at others during conversations.
The child may feel awkward in social settings and struggle to respond if someone speaks to them.
Delays in motor development
They may have poor coordination and is unable to hold a crayon or tie their shoelaces. Their gat may appear clumsy or stiff, and they may not swing their arms as they walk.
Many children with Asperger’s syndrome may have superior rote memory and has a remarkable understanding of technical information. They are also able to focus on something intensely.
How to Spot the Signs of Autism
As a parent, you’re in the ideal position to spot the earliest warning signs of autism. Educate yourself, so you know what’s normal behavior and what’s not.
Monitor your child’s development
Keep a close eye on when – or if – your child is hitting the critical sensory, social, behavioral, and emotional milestones to spot the warning signs of autism early on. While developmental delays don’t necessarily point to autism, they may indicate a potential risk.
Because children develop at a different pace, there’s no need to panic if your child is a little late to walk or talk. But if your child is not reaching the developmental milestones, or you suspect a problem, share your concerns with a child’s pediatrician immediately. Don’t wait.
Sometimes, children with autism spectrum disorder have other associated mental conditions such as:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Tourette’s syndrome
- Depression or other mood disorders
The Bottom Line
Remember that just because your child demonstrates a few of the symptoms mentioned above doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has autism.
See a pediatric neurologist if your child experiences any signs of autism to ensure an accurate and prompt diagnosis. The sooner they are diagnosed, the more likely they will recover and cope with the symptoms.
Regardless of your child’s age, don’t lose hope. Proper treatment can help your child learn, grow, and thrive.