Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development — social interaction, language and behavior. But because autism symptoms vary greatly, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills. In most cases, though, severe autism is marked by a complete inability to communicate or interact with other people.
Some children show signs of autism in early infancy. Other children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life but then suddenly become withdrawn, become aggressive or lose language skills they've already acquired. Though each child with autism is likely to have a unique pattern of behavior, these are some common autism symptoms:
Fails to respond to his or her name
Has poor eye contact
Appears not to hear you at times
Resists cuddling and holding
Appears unaware of others' feelings
Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her "own world"
Starts talking later than age 2, and has other developmental delays by 30 months
Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
Doesn't make eye contact when making requests
Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
Can't start a conversation or keep one going
May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them
Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
Develops specific routines or rituals
Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain
Young children with autism also have a hard time sharing experiences with others. When read to, for example, they're unlikely to point at pictures in the book. This early-developing social skill is crucial to later language and social development.
As they mature, some children with autism become more engaged with others and show less marked disturbances in behavior. Some, usually those with the least severe problems, eventually may lead normal or near-normal lives. Others, however, continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and the adolescent years can mean a worsening of behavioral problems.
Most children with autism are slow to gain new knowledge or skills, and some have signs of lower than normal intelligence. Other children with autism have normal to high intelligence. These children learn quickly yet have trouble communicating, applying what they know in everyday life and adjusting in social situations. A small number of children with autism are "autistic savants" and have exceptional skills in a specific area, such as art, math or music.
When to see a doctor
Babies develop at their own pace, and many don't follow exact timelines found in some parenting books. But children with autism usually show some signs of delayed development by 18 months. If you suspect that your child may have autism, discuss your concerns with your doctor. The earlier treatment begins, the more effective it will be.