The Signs of Autism in Young Children Skip to main content
Powered By Book That In
More Parenting Articles

The Signs of Autism in Young Children

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) encompasses a range of neurological conditions marked by difficulties with social interaction, repetitive patterns of behaviour, and communication challenges including speech and nonverbal skills. The disorder impacts information processing in the brain by affecting the connections and organisation between nerve cells and synapses. The wide variety of symptoms associated with autism can range from mild to severe, forming a spectrum. You can learn more about them by completing autism awareness courses.

Communication Difficulties

One of the core features of autism is impaired communication skills. Many autistic children experience delayed language development and may not reach speech milestones at expected ages. For example, they may not babble as babies or speak first words by 12-18 months. Around a quarter to a third of autistic children remain nonverbal.

Those who do develop speech often have abnormalities like echolalia, meaning they repeat words or phrases said by others rather than generating original speech. Their tone, pitch, speed and rhythm when talking can also sound unusual. Many autistic children also struggle to initiate or sustain conversations.

SEN advocates point out that while autistic people have differences in communication, they have a lot to say if approached in the right way. Using alternative or augmentative communication methods can help give nonverbal children a voice.

Repetitive Behaviours

Autistic children frequently engage in repetitive motions like rocking, spinning, flapping their hands and lining up toys. They may also adhere strongly to specific routines and become highly upset by small, unexpected changes.

Unusual or obsessive interests in specific topics is another hallmark. For example, a child may fixate on calendars, train timetables or other objects unusual for their age. Autistic children often have hyper- or hypo-sensory sensitivities as well, meaning they may overreact or underreact to sensory stimuli like light, sound or touch.

SEN advocacy groups emphasise that repetitive behaviours are often calming mechanisms for autistic individuals. The key is not to eliminate stimming but to replace harmful stims with safe ones that provide comfort.

Social Difficulties

From a very young age, autistic children demonstrate difficulty relating to others socially. They are less likely to make eye contact, engage in interactive play or respond to their name being called. Many autistic toddlers prefer playing alone instead of parallel play next to other children their age.

Autistic children may also fail to understand social cues like facial expressions, tones of voice and body language. Without this innate social awareness, it’s common for them to misinterpret sarcasm or figures of speech and take things very literally. Joint attention skills are also impacted, meaning they struggle to share focus on objects or experiences.

SEN professionals recommend using visual supports, role-playing, stories and careful prompting to teach autistic children social skills directly. Just like learning letters and numbers, social interaction must be specifically taught step-by-step.

Other Signs

* Unusual eating habits - limited diet, obsessive mealtime routines, pocketing food
* Heightened or low pain sensitivity
* Sleep disturbances
* Aggression or self-injury - head banging, skin picking
* Adverse reaction to touch, textures, sounds or smells
* Poor eye contact
* Lack of interest in pretend play or creativity
* Unusual gait or posture

If you notice a combination of social difficulties, communication challenges, repetitive behaviours and sensory issues in a child, share your concerns with your GP or expert SEN advocacy professionals and request a referral to a paediatrician. Early intervention and support services are vital to help autistic children thrive.