8 Autism Symptoms Every Parent Should Know

Updated: Feb. 08, 2023

More than 3 million people in America are affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the symptoms of this group of complicated development disorders vary, these are signs that a person may be at risk.

What are the symptoms of autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that impacts communication as well as behavior. People with autism can have challenges with problem solving, interacting and communicating with others, as well as with learning. Because there’s no medical detection or test available for this developmental disorder, doctors must rely on their assessment of a child’s behavior and development for a diagnosis.

Experts do know that about one in 59 children are diagnosed with ASD, but the type and severity of symptoms differ. So it’s important, especially for parents, to recognize and learn about the symptoms of autism. These symptoms may look like autism, but they aren’t.


Trouble with verbal communication

“While babies hit language milestones at various times, if there is a delay beyond certain ages, it’s important to seek a professional evaluation,” says Paul Wang, MD, senior vice president and head of medical research at Autism Speaks. Potential autism symptoms include no babbling or no back-and-forth gestures like pointing or waving by 12 months; no words by 16 months; or no meaningful, two-word phrases by 24 months. (Here’s what you should never say to parents with children that have autism.)


Challenges with social reciprocity

“Healthy children show their connections with other people by sharing a smile, a hug, or a knowing look,” says Dr. Wang. Hopefully you should be seeing big smiles or other joyful expressions by six months of age. Similarly, if your baby is not mimicking sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by nine months, it’s advisable to seek an evaluation. Eye contact might also be difficult for people with ASD, which affects their ability to read and interpret other people’s facial expressions. “Many children with autism have a hard time relating to others, so they may seem more interested in objects than people,” says Dana Wattenberg Khani, MEd, senior consultant and autism expert for Autism Friendly Spaces, which partners with organizations to make them more accommodating to people with diverse needs. For example, if you show your child a photo of a ball, or give him a ball, he may be more focused on those than on making eye contact with Mom or Dad. He also may prefer to play alone because of difficulties relating to other people. (Learn about the simple eye test that could help diagnose autism earlier.)


Loss of speech or social skills

According to research, regression is very common among children with ASD. “Any child who is sick or upset might show a couple of days of decreased language and communication, but if the loss of skills lasts more than a few days, it’s important to seek out an expert to figure out why,” suggests Dr. Wang. A study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that regression occurs in 20 percent of children with autism, or one in five cases.


Repetitive behaviors

“Hand-flapping, rocking, jumping and twirling, arranging and rearranging objects, and repeating sounds, words, or phrases,” are all common repetitive behaviors characteristic of ASD, according to Autism Speaks.


Intense rigidity

Children with ASD can become fixated on order when it may not seem to have a purpose. During play, they may spend hours lining up their toys and sorting them by color or size instead of playing with them. “Many children with autism gravitate toward trains,” notes Khani. “They have wheels that go around and around, they move along a structured track, they run on a predictable schedule, and they have numbers or letters assigned to them.” Routines may be unreasonably important, as well. In a young child, changes in usual ways of doing things may result in tantrum-like behavior. As children get older, autism symptoms might reveal themselves in repetitive behaviors like pacing or wringing their hands together when they get anxious about a schedule change. (Here’s what you need to know about using CBD for autism.)


Strong preoccupations or obsessions

Extreme interest in and deep knowledge of an unusual subject matter can also be autism symptoms, according to Autism Speaks. They offer examples like an obsession with fans, vacuum cleaners, or toilets, and expertise in astronomy or Thomas the Tank Engine. Older children and adults with autism may develop a preoccupation with numbers, symbols, dates, or science topics. (Don’t miss these other things experts wish you knew about autism.)


Taking things literally

People on the autism spectrum often have trouble inferring or understanding abstract concepts and idioms. “When I taught second grade, I asked a child to toss me a paper clip,” recalls Khani. “Suddenly, there was a paper clip bouncing off my head when he threw it at me.” Similarly, if you tell a child to “take a seat,” he may ask where he should take it. (Learn how to tell the difference between autism and ADHD.)


Associated conditions

“It’s common for people on the spectrum to also be diagnosed with other disorders,” notes Khani. According to Autism Speaks, diagnoses that often accompany ASD include gastrointestinal disorders, seizure disorders, sleep dysfunction, sensory processing problems, and pica (the tendency to eat things that aren’t food). Next, don’t fall for these myths about autism most people still believe.