Did you know that early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can show up in toddlers as young as 12 months old? With this knowledge in hand, parents and caregivers can look out for specific behaviors and missed milestones and get your child the help they need to learn, grow and thrive.
Learning to recognize the early markers of ASD can be a challenge, but it’s important for intervention. “Parents can start noticing ASD signs as early as 1 to 2 years old,” says Trudy Yeager, OT, with ABC Pediatric Therapy Network. “Typically they can notice it through behaviors such as lining up toys, repetitive behaviors like rocking and twirling, spinning objects, social skills, communication skills, limited tolerance for changes in routine, and limited tolerance for a variety of sensory input.”
Additionally, a lack of babbling or language development (very few or no words by 16 months, or very few or no meaningful two-word phrases by 24 months) can be a sign of ASD. Not making eye contact or turning toward the person speaking is another marker. Also, if the child doesn’t point at people or objects, imitate sounds or movements, or has little to no response if their name is called, these are some other behaviors to watch out for.
Not all children with autism show all the signs, and many children who don’t have autism will show a few. That’s why professional evaluation is crucial.
Testing and Diagnosis
A diagnosis of Autism may be received as early as 18 months, yet the average age of diagnosis in the U.S. is around 4 years. When a parent suspects a child may have key indicators of ASD, a first step is to contact their primary care physician for a complete check-up to rule out other medical concerns.
“Pediatricians help guide the diagnosis and treatment plan for autism and are great resources for developmental milestones,” explains Kristin Feld, OT, with ABC Pediatric Therapy Network. “If the pediatrician is in agreement that the child is showing developmental delays or possibly autism, request a referral for an evaluation.”
There is no single sign that definitively points to the presence of an autism spectrum disorder, but parents who notice even one sign or developmental concern should share this information with their child’s pediatrician, early intervention provider or school. While a wait-and-see approach is certainly valid in some circumstances, parents should be their child’s strongest advocate, asking for specific timelines if they are asked to wait. They may also seek second opinions and appropriate therapies in the meantime.
For children under 3, parents in Hamilton County should also submit a request for services from Help Me Grow (HMG), Ohio’s early intervention program. These requests can be submitted online (helpmegrow.org) or by phone (513-434-3322 or 1-800-755-GROW), and can be accessed through the Ohio Department of Health website.
For children 3 years and older, parents can contact their local elementary school or school district (whether the child attends school there or not) to share that they have concerns about their child’s development and request an evaluation for preschool (ages 3 to 5) or school-age (6 and older) special education services through the school district.
A psychologist with Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services, Lauren Jones, Ph.D explains that there is not one specific treatment for autism, as treatments should be individualized to target a child’s specific needs and developmental goals. Some strategies may include ABA therapy, which focuses on building new skills by breaking them down into teachable parts, increasing helpful behaviors and skills, and decreasing challenging or unsafe behaviors. “Other important therapies might include training parents to support a child’s learning and behavior, speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and play or talk therapy,” Jones adds. Some children also benefit from medications to help with symptoms related to autism, such as difficulties with attention, behavior regulation, or mood.
According to Yeager, parents can help kids learn and grow by providing them with a variety of sensory input throughout the day and helping to challenge their routines. “Also, it’s important to give them structured time for adult-directed tasks and encourage them to practice imaginative play,” she says. “Parents can learn what the milestones should be and work towards them, getting their kids involved in social situations and working to boost skills that are underdeveloped.”
The CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early” website has many useful tools for learning about what milestones are typically observed at various ages, and what parents should do if they observe differences in their child’s development.
“For most children, the earlier we can provide effective intervention, the more successful those interventions are likely to be,” Jones says. By reducing autism symptoms and increasing critical life skills (social interaction, communication, emotional regulation, learning, play), children can begin to thrive. “Some children even show increased IQ scores after receiving successful early treatment,” Jones adds.