Autism in Toddlers: Identifying ASD Early

It’s common to get caught up comparing your child to their peers when it comes to their developmental milestones. However, when your child has autism, those milestones may not be the same at all.

Early diagnosis is vital for children with autism. Keep in mind that one child with ASD may have different symptoms or behaviors from another child with ASD.

Recognizing Signs of Autism in Toddlers

Two children playing together

Behavioral Differences

Behavioral differences are often the most recognizable in children with autism. A toddler with ASD may exhibit any of the following:

  • Difficulty with changes or transitions between activities
  • Prefers routine, order, and ritual
  • Rocks, spins, or sways
  • Walks on tiptoes for periods of time
  • Twirls fingers or flaps hands
  • Not crying if in pain or showing any fear
  • Extreme sensitivity to smells, sounds, lights, textures, and touch
  • Limited, obsessive interests
  • Plays with parts of a toy instead of the whole toy (ex: spinning the wheels of a train)
  • Looks at objects from unusual angles
Autistic child struggling to communicate with parents

Communication Differences

Communication differences may be more difficult to detect in young children. A toddler with autism may display any of the following:

  • Nonverbal; says no single words by 15 months
  • Says only two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Unresponsive to their own name (but will respond to other sounds)
  • Does not point at things to indicate needs
  • Repeats what others say without understanding the meaning (parroting or echoing)
  • Shows little to no interest in initiating conversation or communicating
  • Mixes pronouns, possibly referring to themselves as “you” and others as “I”
  • Does not use toys or objects to engage in pretend play
  • Regression (losing language or other social milestones) between 15 and 24 months
Group of children being social

Social Differences

Social differences may be the most difficult to notice in young children, especially if there are no additional children present in their home. A toddler with ASD can display any of the following:

  • Makes little to no eye contact
  • Difficulty interpreting facial expressions, including no response at all
  • Does not point to objects or events and may not look where a parent is pointing
  • Uses inappropriate facial expressions for the situation
  • Unlikely to bring objects of personal interest to show a parent
  • Shows little empathy for others
  • Does not share with others
  • Has difficulty making and keeping friends

How to Distinguish a Toddler with Autism from
Typically Developing Peers

Here are some examples that may assist in determining the difference between age-appropriate behavior and early signs of ASD:

12 month old autistic child

12 Months

A typically developing toddler will turn their head when they hear their name. A toddler with ASD may not turn to look, even after their name is repeated several times, but will respond to other sounds.

18 month old child playing at The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis

18 Months

A toddler with delayed speech will point, gesture, or use facial expressions to communicate. Toddlers with ASD may not attempt to compensate for delayed speech and may be limited to repeating something they have just heard.

24 month old toddler taking autism test at The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis

24 Months

A typically developing toddler will bring their parent a picture they have drawn or a rock they have found and share their excitement with them. Toddlers with ASD may bring their parent a jar of bubbles to open, but they do not look at their face or share in the joy of playing together.

Mom learning how to work with her autistic son at The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis

If You Suspect Your Toddler Has Autism, Early Diagnosis is Beneficial

How do you know if your child has autism? Thorough diagnostic testing can rule out other developmental delays and help your child get the support they need as early as possible, ensuring smoother transitions as they age. Contact us at The Cardinal Center to get a referral for diagnostic testing.

Once you’ve gotten that diagnosis, we at The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis are here to help your child get exactly what they need. We make the intake process as simple as possible.

Mom learning how to work with her autistic son at The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis


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