By Raising Children Network
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Some children will meet developmental milestones at first, but then seem to lose skills around 18-24 months. This is called ‘regression’.

Children who have been diagnosed with autistic disorder have difficulties with interaction and communication with others. The condition is often diagnosed when it becomes clear that a child’s social behaviour and language aren’t developing in a typical way.

Changes to diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

In May 2013, the criteria used to diagnose children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) changed.

Previously, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition) (DSM-IV) categorised children with ASD as having either autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, also called Asperger’s syndrome, or PDD-NOS. The new version of the Manual, DSM-5, combines these three categories into one, which is simply referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The information in this article applies only to people who have been diagnosed using DSM-IV criteria. People who have been diagnosed using DSM-IV criteria will not be affected by the DSM-5 changes to diagnosis.

Autism: common characteristics

Children with autism have difficulties relating to and communicating with other people.

When they’re babies, they don’t look at others a lot. By two years of age, they often won’t respond to their name or smile at others. They might not change their pitch when they’re babbling so it won’t sound like a conversation. Also they won’t imitate others with behaviour like clapping or waving.

Children with autism will often repeat a particular behaviour over and over, or become fixated on an object. For example, they might repeatedly turn lights on and off, or focus on the wheels of a toy car, rather than playing with the whole car and engaging in pretend play.

Many children with autism also have unusual sensory issues, although this isn’t necessary for a diagnosis. They might:

  • be especially sensitive to sound, which is why they raise their hands to their ears to block out noise
  • like the feel of objects, and smell and sniff at everything around them
  • want to eat only foods with a certain texture – for example, they’ll be happy to eat soft, smooth food, but will refuse anything lumpy
  • use their peripheral vision a lot, or tilt their heads to look at objects from a particular angle.

Some children with autism have below-average intelligence. Others will have intelligence within the typical range – often called ‘high-functioning’ autism.

Autism can also be present with other conditions, such as epilepsy, and other disorders like Fragile X syndrome.  

Autistic disorder can be diagnosed at about two years of age in most children. At this age, it can usually be seen whether a baby or child’s development is conforming to accepted, age-based milestones, particularly in relation to social and emotional interaction and communication.

Checklist for signs of autism

Social interactions
Children with autism might:

  • seem to be in their own world
  • show little eye contact – for example, during interaction, or to draw attention to something
  • not use gestures – for example, lifting arms to be picked up
  • not share enjoyment or interests – for example, they might not point to an object or event to share it
  • show little emotion or empathy
  • not respond to their names
  • show no interest in other children or peers.

Children with autism might:

  • have little or no babble
  • have little or no spoken language
  • not engage in pretend play – for example, they won’t feed a baby doll
  • have ‘echolalia’, which means they echo or mimic words or phrases without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice
  • have difficulty understanding and following simple instructions – for example, ‘Give me the block’ might be difficult for them.

Repetitive or persistent behaviours
Children with autism might:

  • have intense interest in certain objects – they’ll get ‘stuck’ on one particular toy or object
  • focus narrowly on an object – for example, on a detail like opening and closing the door on a toy bus rather than pretending to drive it
  • insist on following routines and be easily upset by change
  • show repetitive body movements or unusual body movements – for example, back-arching, hand-flapping or walking on toes.

Sensory issues
Children with autism might:

  • be extremely sensitive to sensory experiences – for example, they might be easily upset by certain sounds, or only eat foods with a certain texture
  • seek sensory stimulation – for example, they might like deep pressure touch or vibrating objects like the washing machine
  • like to flutter their fingers at the side of their eyes to watch the light flicker.

Video Early signs of autism spectrum disorder

In this short video, parents talk about noticing the early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in their children, including differences in typical developmental behaviour and milestones. They say that it helps to understand developmental milestones so you can act if you’re worried or you think something is wrong. The earlier you act, the better off your child will be.

What to do next

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, or already have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis, the important thing is to get help and support as soon as possible. The sooner children get early childhood intervention services, the more effective these services can be in fostering positive outcomes.

Here are some places to start:

Video Finding and starting early intervention for ASD

In this short video, parents talk about finding and starting early intervention for their children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They share their experiences with interventions and tests.

As they note, there are many excellent resources and interventions available, but it’s important to choose interventions based on scientific evidence that work for your child.

  • Last updated or reviewed 26-08-2016
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Cheryl Dissanayake and Cherie Green, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University.