Child playing with toys on floor

Early Detection of Autism: Lesser-Known Signs

Imagine noticing small differences in your child’s behavior that leave you questioning if something more might be happening. Early signs of autism spectrum disorder can often go unnoticed or be dismissed as quirks. Recognizing these signs is crucial for getting the right support and interventions in place as soon as possible.

Missed Early Indicators

From avoiding eye contact to delayed speech, these indicators can guide parents and caregivers toward early diagnosis, but did you know there are other more subtle signs of autism and global delays? Knowing some of these signs will help guide you to have earlier conversations with your healthcare providers. By starting these conversations early, you can start the diagnosis process much sooner.

Hindsight is really 20/20. I wish I had recognized some of the earlier signs of autism with our daughter, Elizabeth. We are about six years into our autism journey, and the earlier signs seem so obvious to me now. As a new mom who didn’t have much experience with babies, I missed a lot of early signs. I try not to dwell on that too much because our very experienced pediatrician missed all of them, too!

Child at a pediatrician's office
Elizabeth at age of ASD diagnosis

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

First, we must learn what is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is a complex neurological condition that affects individuals in various ways. According to the CDC, autism spectrum disorder is more prevalent than commonly believed. Currently, affecting approximately 1 in 36 children in the United States. Understanding the key characteristics of autism will help parents and caregivers recognize and support individuals with ASD effectively.

Key Characteristics of Autism

  • Challenges in Social Interaction: Individuals with autism may struggle to understand social cues, make eye contact, and engage in reciprocal conversations. They may also find it challenging to form and maintain relationships, leading to social isolation.
  • Communication Difficulties: Autism can manifest as delayed speech development, repetitive language, or difficulty understanding non-verbal communication cues such as facial expressions or gestures. Some individuals may have a significant vocabulary but struggle with pragmatic language skills.
  • Repetitive Behaviors: A common feature of autism and can include repetitive movements (e.g., hand-flapping), adherence to strict routines, intense focus on specific interests, or sensory sensitivities. These behaviors serve different purposes for individuals with ASD and can vary widely in intensity.

Early Signs of Autism in Infants and Toddlers

Now that we know the most common signs related to autism, there are also some lesser-known signs of autism that are often overlooked by healthcare providers. When it comes to recognizing potential signs of autism in infants and toddlers, it’s essential to be observant of their behavior and development. While every child is unique and may show varying signs of development, some common early indicators could signify a child might benefit from early intervention and support.

The symptoms listed below are from our experience with our daughter before her initial diagnosis at two years old. Knowing some of these signs would have been very helpful to start a dialogue with her pediatrician much sooner.

Lesser-known Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Not Holding a Bottle: Reluctance to hold her bottle during feedings. This lack of interest in self-feeding could indicate fine motor and coordination challenges.
  • No Interest in Feeding Themselves: Children with autism may show disinterest in self-feeding or have difficulties transitioning to solid foods due to sensory sensitivities or motor skill delays.
  • Fascination with Spinning Objects: Some children with autism may fixate on repetitive movements, such as watching spinning objects for prolonged periods, as a way to self-soothe or seek sensory stimulation.
  • Pushing Away Books: Avoiding certain objects or activities, like pushing away books when offered for reading, could be a sign of sensory aversion or challenges with social interactions.
  • Severe Constipation: Digestive issues, like severe constipation, can be a physical manifestation of sensory sensitivities or dietary restrictions common in children with autism.
  • Timid When Trying New Things: A child’s hesitance or timidity when presented with new experiences or changes in routine could signify difficulties with adapting to unfamiliar stimuli.
  • Lack of Reaction to Loud Noises: Sensory processing differences can cause children with autism to have a heightened sensitivity or decreased responsiveness to loud noises that typically elicit reactions in neurotypical children.
  • Limited Physical Interactions: Not reaching out to be picked up or a lack of seeking physical affection, such as holding out arms to be carried, might indicate challenges with social reciprocity and communication.
  • W-Sitting: This sitting position is when a child sits with their knees bent and feet positioned near their hips (making a W formation).
  • Toe-Walking: Walking on tip-toes is common among a small percentage of children diagnosed with autism. This is believed to be due to sensory processing difficulties and motor coordination challenges.
  • Elopement: Running away from a parent or caregiver to remove themselves from a non-preferred activity or situation. Sometimes, to escape a perceived danger or due to curiosity.
  • Avoiding Looking in a Mirror: Some children always look down and avoid eye contact, but they may also avoid their reflection in the mirror.
W sit position
Elizabeth in a W Sit Position

Next Steps

Understanding the early signs of autism is helpful for seeking timely intervention and support. This information will help guide discussions with your pediatrician and lead to a referral for a specialist who can appropriately diagnose your child.

Identifying some lesser-known symptoms can make a significant difference for those with autism. Every individual with autism is unique, and early detection coupled with appropriate interventions can lead to better outcomes.

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