The Parent Infant Centre

it can be too late
but never too early

Recognising the early signs of autism

If the early treatment of autism is important, then what are the early signs of autism that parents should look out for? What are the signs of autism in babies? There is no objective test for autism, no blood test or other objective measure. Instead paediatricians look at the child’s behaviour to see if it shows certain common characteristics.

For a parent it is very important to trust your intuition. If you feel that something is wrong with your child, then this should be followed up. Many studies show that parents often identify developmental problems considerably before a formal diagnosis is made, sometimes by several years.

As well as relying upon their intuition, what signs should parents be looking for?

Social interaction

An early cause for concern is when the child has difficulties with social interactions, for example, by not smiling at you when they see you. They may also not respond to your voice or to their name. Some other examples are illustrated below.

Non-autistic baby looking at mother Autistic baby looking away from mother As you can see the child on the left is looking up and is fully engaged with his mother. In contrast the child on the right avoids eye contact, tries not to notice his mother and will not engage. The latter are common examples of the early symptoms of autism.
 Non-autistic baby cuddled by mother  Autistic baby pulls away from mother The child on the left is happy to be held and is visibly connecting with its mother. The child on the right gives cause for concern, it is pulling away and does not want to be held.
 Non-autistic baby playing with another baby  Autistic child plays alone The young boy on the right would rather play alone and with objects rather than play with other children. He would rather maintain his privacy and play as an individual instead of developing the relationships needed to interact with groups.
 Non-autistic child interacts with others  Autistic child rejects others Children are typically collaborative and can be fully engaged with others. One sign of autism is a tendency to be disinterested and isolated.

Verbal communication

Communication can take many forms. The baby pulling away from its mother in the example above is communicating something, perhaps a fear of being overwhelmed. However, a child's lack of verbal communication can be a key cause of concern. Children start to talk at different ages, but a lack of babbling in an infant can be an early sign of autism, as can a mechanical repetition of the same sounds over and over again.

Behaviour

Some other early signs of autism include behaviours which act as defensive withdrawals from an overwhelming world. This could be the case with a child who sleeps excessively for their age or who seems too subdued. A child can also withdraw by holding its body in a way that is too stiff or zone out by being too floppy. An obsession with certain objects can also be a sign that the child is withdrawing. Some other examples are illustrated below.

Non-autistic child enjoys sounds Autistic child overwhelmed by sounds The child on the right seems overwhelmed by sounds. The early signs of autism can include a heightened sensitivity to sounds and other sensory experience.
Non-autistic baby can be on stomach Autistic baby doesn't like being on stomach The child on the right does not like to be laid on her stomach. This can be another early sign of autism.
Autistic child that is hard to reach Autistic child turns his back on the world These two pictures illustrate possible autistic behaviour. The child on the left is turning away from contact; the child on the right has completely turned his back on anyone who could interrupt his privacy. Both children are withdrawing from the world.

Finally

We should stress that children develop at different rates and in different ways. Taken in isolation one or more of the above characteristics may not be an early sign of autism. However, when several of these characteristics are present and there is a pattern of withdrawal, then this may be a cause for concern. 

You, as the parent, are best placed to observe and to understand your child. Watch them, get to know their rhythms and patterns. Try to understand the communication contained in their behaviour. And then, if you have a concern, be persistent in seeking advice and help.

The Parent Infant Clinic offers a range of child and parent-infant psychotherapies, including a specialist programme for young children who show the early signs of autism. Contact us if you would like some further information or to arrange an initial consultation for you and your child. If it is not possible to visit our north London clinic, then we may be able to give feedback based upon your home video recordings. (See this blog post for a study that confirms the potential for trained observers to identify the signs of autism from informal home videos.)

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