Autism: What Are the Telltale Signs?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for several different behavioral disorders. According to the CDC these include: autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. These types of ASD have been determined using The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) guidelines in their diagnostic manual. Rett’s Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder are two rare severe autistic-like conditions also included in the APA’s diagnostic manual. According to Web M.D., autism affects three aspects of a child’s life. They are social interaction, communication, and behaviors/interests. Often symptoms are downplayed as a phase that will be outgrown. Children with possible autism should be tested by qualified professionals that have experience diagnosing this disorder. Early intervention is crucial for children with autism since early therapy can make great strides in language and social skills.

Detecting Autism

Web M.D. states that autism affects one out of every 88 children in the United States. While these numbers seem to be on the rise, it’s unclear if autism is becoming more prevalent or if the rise comes from improved detection. Each child has their own pattern of autism. In a child with autism, their development may be delayed from birth while others develop normally and suddenly lose social/language skills. It’s this characteristic of ASD that can make a diagnosis difficult. While there are different symptoms of ASD, the one thing they all have in common are challenges, disabilities, and delays in development of social communication. Parents are often the first to notice something is wrong with their child. A diagnosis of autistic disorder is made (using the APA’s diagnostic manual) when a child displays six or more of 12 symptoms listed across three major areas. These areas are social interaction, communication, and behavior.

Impairment in Social Interaction

The delay or absence of social interaction in children can be a sign of ASD. Impairments in nonverbal behaviors such as eye to eye contact, facial expression, body posture, and gestures can be signs of ASD. Another instance of social impairment is failure to develop peer relationships at appropriate developmental levels. Children also show a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, and achievements with others. Lastly, children with autism show a lack of social or emotional reciprocity. They do this by not participating in social games and preferring solitary activities as opposed to playing with others.

Impairment in Communication

Children with autism often have difficulties with communication skills. These can manifest themselves in several ways. There can be a delay or a complete lack of development of spoken language. This absence of spoken language is usually accompanied by an omission of an alternative type of communication (such as gestures or mime). In children with adequate speech there can be impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others. The APA’s guidelines also identify stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language as a possible symptom of communication impairment. Children with autism also display a lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe or social imitative play that is appropriate to their developmental level.

Behavioral Patterns

Autism is often identified with behavioral problems. Repetitive or stereotyped behavior, interests, and behaviors can be a sign of autism. Autistic children can show an abnormal intensity or focus involving one or more stereotyped or restricted patterns of interest. They can also show an inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals. Another possible sign of autism is stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms. These can manifest themselves as hand or finger flapping/twisting or even complex body movements. Additionally, a persistent preoccupation with parts of objects can be a warning sign of autism. As long as these behavioral disorders (as well as social and communication impairments) are not associated with Rett’s Syndrome or Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, they can be signs of autism or ASD.


Often physicians will ask parents to fill out a checklist to help with a diagnosis of autism. These checklists ask questions about certain behaviors and allow parents and physicians to get an accurate diagnosis. Here’s an example of a checklist.

Click here to download this checklist.


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