Early Signs and Symptoms of Autism in Infants & Toddlers
Parents of young children are often concerned about their child’s development and whether they’re meeting developmental milestones. But even when a missing milestone has been spotted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a definitive signal of an underlying problem or disorder. So, what should you do if you suspect your child has autism? It is always better to get a professional opinion from a child psychologist who can help determine if there’s a problem and suggest early intervention or treatment of autism if needed.
In today’s article, we talk about the early signs of autism and the benefits of early intervention.
Early signs of autism may be early as 6 or 9 months, even though an accurate and reliable diagnosis cannot be made before the child is 18 months old. However, you can always keep an eye on the development of the child and look out for missed development milestones when compared to the norm. A pediatrician or child specialist should be regularly checking your child’s development at 9, 12, and 24 months.
First Signs of Autism Symptoms in Babies
If around 6 to 9 months your child is not engaging with sounds and expressions or even smiling back at you or other caretakers, it may be a cause for concern. By the age of around 12 months, your child should be indicating preferences by pointing or reaching and by age 2 they should be able to string a couple of words together to make a meaningful phrase, according to the norm. However, some children with ASD may display normal development before the age of 1 or 2 but then suddenly “regress” and seem to lose language or social skills they had previously acquired. This is a regressive type of autism.
To get a better idea, here is a list prepared by The National Autism Association listing the early signs of autism. A child with ASD might:
Not respond to their name (the child may appear deaf)
Not point at objects or things of interest, or demonstrate an interest
Not play “pretend” games
Avoid eye contact
Want to be alone
Have difficulty understanding, or showing understanding, or other people’s feelings or their own
Have no speech or delayed speech
Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
Give unrelated answers to questions
Get upset by minor changes
Have obsessive interests
Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
Have unusual reactions (over or under-sensitivity) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel
Have low to no social skills
Avoid or resist physical contact
Demonstrate little safety or danger awareness
Reverses pronouns (e.g., says “you” instead of “I”)
Why is early intervention critical to autism treatment?
Since autism can be diagnosed accurately around 18 months, treatment for autism can also start as early as 18 months, if not earlier. Early intervention for autism is recommended because it is highly effective. Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity at a younger age, early intervention gives us a better chance to change the developing brain. In addition to this, it stops problematic behavior from turning into a habit with age. Well-timed early intervention is especially ideal for children with mild autism, as delays are remediated, and the child is prepared to enter group learning with other children as they reach school age.
Treatment for early signs of autism: Occupational therapy
Occupational therapy is an important component of treatment for autism, as children with autism often learn best when taught to complete tasks through small steps. Simpler tasks like putting on a T-shirt if taught with 4 or more steps, while complex tasks like how to carry on a back-and-forth conversation may require several steps or building blocks to be learned properly. All of these skills are learned only through consistent and repeated practice, which is extremely necessary with such skill break-down - to form a coherent skill set that allows your child to carry out such everyday tasks with more ease.
An occupational therapist will first evaluate your child’s skills and challenges through their observation of tasks being carried out and how they interact with the environment and objects around them. They will take notes on the following:
the child’s attention span and stamina
motor skills like balance, posture, and manipulation of small objects
need for personal space
responses to different types of stimuli, etc.
After gathering the required information, the occupational therapist will formulate a program specifically designed for your child’s needs. In early intervention, structured and individualized care has been shown to work best for autism. The main goal of occupational therapy is to help your child improve their quality of life at home or in school. The idea is to introduce, maintain and improve adaptive skills so that your child can be as independent and productive as possible.