Early Signs of Autism: What to Look For

Concerned that your young grandchild seems "off" or isn't hitting developmental milestones? Read on to learn if there really is a problem.

By Julie Weingarden Dubin

Worried that your grandchild isn't speaking at age two? Concerned that something just seems off about the way your young granddaughter interacts with others? In addition to height and weight milestones from birth to age 5, a child should also reach milestones in how he plays, learns, speaks, and acts. Any delays could indicate signs of an autism spectrum disorder—a group of developmental disabilities caused by a failure of certain areas of the brain to work together.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 88 American children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which can affect a child’s functional ability to communicate, interact, behave and learn.

Start tracking

“There are no clear signs of autism at birth although autism is likely to start before birth,” says epidemiologist Matthew Maenner, Ph.D., of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The signs of autism usually aren’t evident until toddler time, he says. At around 18 months most toddlers use several words and say new words often. They show affection to familiar people and they may be wary of people they don’t know.

“Although signs specific to autism may not be evident until the second year of life, it’s important that parents track their child’s development from a very early age, and grandparents can help,” says Dr. Maenner.

Early diagnosis

A recent study led by Dr. Maenner while at the University of Wisconsin—Madison found that the identification of certain symptoms in children, including poor nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, was associated with earlier diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Kids who displayed multiple behavioral symptoms were diagnosed more quickly, as well.

Although doctors can reliably diagnose autism by the time kids are about 2 years old, research shows that fewer than half the children with autism are identified by age 5.

Here’s where you come in.

Help your grandchildren's parents see the early signs and guide them to the resources they’ll need.

Seeing signs

A child with autism spectrum disorder might:

  • Not respond to their name by 12 months of age
  • Not point at objects to show interest (for example, pointing at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
  • Not play “pretend” games (like feeding a doll) by 18 months
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Have delayed speech and language skills
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

The sooner you can identify a child having a problem, the sooner he can receive the support to help him succeed and reach his potential, says Dr. Maenner. Research shows that early intervention treatment, such as therapy to help a child with walking, talking, and interacting with others, can greatly improve a child’s development.

What you can do

“It’s important to recognize that the signs of autism aren’t always clear and that identifying that a toddler has autism is a difficult and emotional process for the family,” says Dr. Maenner. “You can support the parents by asking if they have any concerns, pointing out the positive things your grandchild is doing and by helping them complete a milestone checklist.”

If you think there may be a problem, do not feel helpless—you can:

  • Encourage the parents to talk to your grandchild’s pediatrician
  • Ask for a referral to see a developmental pediatrician or other specialist such as a child neurologist or child psychologist
  • Get a free evaluation through your state’s public early childhood system. Contact your local early intervention agency for children under age 3 and for kids 3 and older, contact the public school in your area

Find more information on the CDC’s Autism Information Center Web page


Parents with young children, be careful with Autism Speaks. I'm sure they do some good things, but their "symptoms to watch for" tend to confuse parents. Typical toddlers display many of the behaviors of autism, from time to time. One or two of these signs don't necessarily mean your child is on the spectrum. Always consult a pediatrician if you have any worries.

wanna1129827@yahoo.com on 2017-01-10 09:13:03

Sangelia - I was an autism consultant for many years and I definitely agree with you. I just cannot agree with the goals of Autism Speaks. The many people on the spectrum I have worked with agree with you also.

Novesta on 2014-01-28 06:39:55

I wouldn't go to Autism Speaks.
One of the best places to go is Facebook. Find a group/page that deals with it on the personal level. Be it as a family member or as the person with it personally.
You are more likely to get better help on FB.
Before you get down on me. I have High Functioning Autism AKA Aspergers.

Sangelia on 2014-01-23 18:10:56

We have a 5-year grandson who has some form of Autism. He was diagnosed at 14 month and has been in some type of therapy, speech and physical, since that time. He is an extremely affectionate boy and loves to tease, especially me. He can work a word pad on I-phone better than most adults. His motor skills are exceptional. We started teaching him sign language, but he is now verbalizing. He is such a joy for us as grandparents. He comes to visit every week. My husband says he has learned more about love from >>>than anyone else. Autism Speaks is a great place for grandparents to go to find out more.

GrammaFaye on 2014-01-09 15:14:19

Compatibility Horoscope

How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?

Find out here.