Recognizing Autism in Children

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The word autism refers to a set of conditions which may lead to socialization, communication and behavioral difficulties in children. Many individuals and organizations call this condition set autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Signs of autism generally appear early in life. Usually, a professional diagnosis is available by ages 2-3, but the diagnosis window varies: In some cases, a diagnosis can occur by 18 months, while in other cases, a diagnosis may not be possible until significantly later. Diagnoses are important because they go a long way toward achieving good outcomes for children with autism. The sooner a child receives an appropriate diagnosis, the better positioned they will be to access education and assistance tailored toward their needs. Parents, too, benefit from their child receiving early diagnoses. By being aware of your child’s condition, you’ll be able to learn about ways to support and empower your child.

Often, the first step toward a diagnosis occurs when parents notice signs of autism in their children. That’s why it is important to understand symptoms of autism. Before concluding with a look at autism’s risk factors and how to seek professional help, we will discuss signs a child may have autism: 

  • Sensory challenges
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Repetitive and restrictive behaviors
  • Communication challenges
  • Social challenges
  • Challenges in school

Sensory Challenges

Children with autism may display symptoms related to how they respond to the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. These responses can take the form of hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity.

When a person experiences hypersensitivity, they find sensory inputs overwhelming. One behavior you should look out for is sensory avoidance, which can signal hypersensitivity. A child displaying sensory avoidance may try to stay away from certain noises or textures, like clothes they find scratchy. They may also dislike being touched and may seem to startle easily, among other behaviors.

Hyposensitivity leads children into a different experience. To a child with hyposensitivity, sensory stimuli seem more muted than they otherwise would. In an effort to fully experience sensations, children with hyposensitivity often take part in sensory-seeking activities. Examples include touching items (to feel their textures) or seeking loud sounds.

The conditions of hypersensitivty and hyposensitivity are not mutually exclusive. Some children may display both at different times.

Aggressive Behaviors

Autism may lead to certain behavioral patterns in children. One of the most noticeable is physical aggression, such as biting or hitting, directed toward peers or adults. Children with autism may also direct physical harm toward themselves, with an example being hitting oneself or biting one’s hands.

Generally, younger children trend toward aggression towards others, while older children shift toward self-directed aggression. Sleep problems may exacerbate these issues. Along with harming themselves or others, children with autism sometimes break objects as well. They may also engage in tantrums, running away or eating things they shouldn’t.

Repetitive and Restrictive Behaviors 

Though they appear in children both with and without autism, repetitive and restrictive behaviors (RRBs) also sometimes signal autism’s presence. These behaviors can take the form of body movements like rocking or spinning. Children may also repeatedly move objects in a certain manner. There may be some overlap between aggressive and repetitive behavior, too, as another manifestation of the latter is repeatedly hitting oneself.

Routines play a role as well. If your child has autism, they may react badly to a disruption of routine, such as being unable to organize items in their preferred way or take a familiar route to a destination. Another example is obsessing over a subject matter, like cars or an object, like a specific game. 

Communication Challenges

Many children with ASD encounter problems communicating. Some are unable to express themselves verbally or can only do so to a limited extent. Interpreting language is another hurdle faced by some children with ASD. Communication development is often slower in children with autism and regression — losing previously developed skills — is a possibility as well.

Certain speech patterns may be evidence of autism. One example is repetitive language, such as counting out loud over and over. Another example is eochalalia, which is a behavior that involves repeatedly saying the same thing. When a child repeats something they heard earlier, the behavior is called delayed eochalalia.

Nonverbal communication challenges often appear in children with autism, too. Autism may make using gestures difficult or impossible. Additionally, a child’s gestures or facial expressions may not match the verbal content of their speech, at least according to their conversation partners’ expectations.

Another complication can come from variations in prosody — that is, the rhythm speech takes, which affects how one’s tone and emotions come across. In people with autism, speech patterns sometimes take a monotone or fluctuating cadence. That can present challenges because listeners sometimes have a harder time interpreting speech that remains flat or has large changes.

Being unable to communicate is understandably frustrating for anyone, including the children with autism. Try to keep that in mind if your child is struggling to communicate and becomes angry about the situation. 

Social Challenges

All children face challenges in learning to navigate social situations, but autism can present unique issues. Children with autism tend to show less interest in and engagement with the people around them. Communication hurdles play a role here, too, as individuals with autism generally have trouble reading people’s social cues and nonverbal signals, such as body language. Sadly, these difficulties may make it more difficult for children with autism to build friendships. 

It’s worth your while as a parent to pay attention to how your child is or isn’t interacting with the people around them. Socialization information may be helpful for your child’s doctor and/or during autism screenings.

Challenges in School

Many children receive an autism diagnosis before they ever set foot in a classroom, but it’s still helpful to be cognizant of the challenges school may present. Several facets of autism, including behavioral, social and communication difficulties, may culminate to make the classroom environment a difficult one for children with autism. 

For instance, children with autism who love routine may find school schedule changes distressing, while those who react strongly to sensory inputs can find bells and bright lights alarming. Because of factors like those, it’s important to pay attention if a teacher or counselor brings concerns about your child to you. Also be proactive in seeking out information on how your child is doing in school.

Risk Factors for Autism

While researchers have not identified a sole cause for autism, certain risk factors can increase the likelihood your child has the condition. Among those are a family history of autism and pregnancy complications. Additionally, a child whose parents are of an advanced age may be more likely to develop autism. Another factor is biological sex: Boys are much more likely than girls to receive a diagnosis of autism. Still, girls are not immune from the condition.

This is not an exhaustive list, and the presence of any or all of these risk factors doesn’t mean your child certainly has autism. However, they are important to consider should you have concerns.

Developmental Monitoring and Screening

Compared to children without autism, children with the condition tend to meet developmental milestones at a slower pace, and they may miss some altogether. Regardless of whether you suspect your child has autism, you can adopt a framework for tracking their progress through developmental monitoring and screening.

Developmental monitoring involves keeping tabs on your child’s growth via your own observations and through conversing with medical professionals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published useful materials that can help you monitor your child’s development. Another important component of developmental monitoring is interactions with health care providers. For instance, it’s important for providers to be aware of your child’s risk factors for autism.

Developmental screenings provide a more structured checkup process. Screenings are a good idea regardless of whether you have concerns about your child or not and to guide those, the American Academy of Pediatrics has created a recommended screening framework. At the age milestones of nine, 18 and 30 months, the academy advises children undergo developmental and behavioral screenings. The academy also recommends autism-specific testing at 18 and 24 months of age. (Other screenings and check-ins are within the academy’s framework as well.)

To set up a monitoring and screening schedule, be sure to work with your child’s pediatrician. And if you have concerns about your child’s development, don’t delay: Set up an appointment, regardless of whether it’s time for a pre-scheduled check-in or not.

Moving Forward

All people with autism are unique when it comes to their personalities and how autism presents itself, so symptoms can vary greatly from child to child. If your child displays some of the behaviors or encounters some of challenges listed in this article, discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor. The same goes for if your child displays concerning traits not covered here.

While screening tools and articles are helpful early steps, only a medical professional can provide a diagnosis. That will let you move toward getting appropriate support for your child, whether it turns out their challenges are stemming from autism or another cause.

Children with autism and their parents face a unique set of challenges, but they can also build toward a bright future. Today, there are organizations around the world dedicated to helping children with autism, not to mention countless medical professionals and fellow parents waiting to give you advice and assistance. Securing an accurate diagnosis opens the door to such help.