Written by Christine Wilson M.S., CCC-SLP
Signs and symptoms of autism in babies and toddlers
If autism is caught in infancy, treatment can take full advantage of the young brain’s remarkable plasticity. Although autism is hard to diagnose before 24 months, symptoms often surface between 12 and 18 months. If signs are detected by 18 months of age, intensive treatment may help to rewire the brain and reverse the symptoms.
The earliest signs of autism involve the absence of normal behaviors—not the presence of abnormal ones—so they can be tough to spot. In some cases, the earliest symptoms of autism are even misinterpreted as signs of a “good baby,” since the infant may seem quiet, independent, and undemanding. However, you can catch warning signs early if you know what to look for.
Some autistic infants don’t respond to cuddling, reach out to be picked up, or look at their mothers when being fed.
Early signs of autism in babies and toddlers
- Doesn’t make eye contact (e.g. look at you when being fed).
- Doesn’t smile when smiled at.
- Doesn’t respond to his or her name or to the sound of a familiar voice.
- Doesn’t follow objects visually.
- Doesn’t point or wave goodbye or use other gestures to communicate.
- Doesn’t follow the gesture when you point things out.
- Doesn’t make noises to get your attention.
- Doesn’t initiate or respond to cuddling.
- Doesn’t imitate your movements and facial expressions.
- Doesn’t reach out to be picked up.
- Doesn’t play with other people or share interest and enjoyment.
- Doesn’t ask for help or make other basic requests.
Following Delays = Immediate Evaluation
- By 6 months: No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions.
- By 9 months: No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions.
- By 12 months: Lack of response to name.
- By 12 months: No babbling or “baby talk.”
- By 12 months: No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving.
- By 16 months: No spoken words.
- By 24 months: No meaningful two-word phrases that don’t involve imitating or repeating.