Recognizing Signs of Autism in Toddlers: Red Flags and Resources

Parents often worry that their child’s behaviors or delays may indicate autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, not all developmental quirks point to autism. This comprehensive guide examines signs that your toddler likely does not have autism and provides tips on identifying true red flags. Autism in toddlers presents with early signs typically noticed around 18 to 24 months, although diagnosis may occur later.

Recognizing Signs of Autism in Toddlers:
Recognizing Signs of Autism in Toddlers:

Introduction

It’s common for parents to look for signs of autism in their toddler’s development. Certain behaviors like lack of eye contact or preference for solitary play may raise concerns. However, no single trait definitively indicates autism.

This article will discuss:

  • Typical developmental milestones that suggest a toddler is not autistic
  • Behaviors sometimes mistaken as autism traits
  • When to seek an evaluation for possible ASD
  • Resources for autism testing and support

The goal is to reassure parents while also highlighting potential red flags requiring further assessment. With information and support, families can get their child needed therapies early for the best possible outcomes.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability characterized by challenges with social communication and interaction as well as restricted, repetitive behaviors. It affects 1 in 44 children, more often boys.

Core autism traits involve:

  • Persistent difficulties with back-and-forth social communication/interaction
  • Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors
  • Symptoms present in early childhood
  • Symptoms that impair everyday function

ASD is called a “spectrum” disorder because it encompasses a range of symptoms and severities. No two people with autism are exactly alike.

Milestones Suggesting a Toddler Does Not Have Autism

While every child develops differently, certain milestones by age 2-3 suggest a toddler is not autistic. These include:

Social Communication

  • Making eye contact
  • Responding to their name
  • Following simple instructions
  • Using words and gestures to communicate
  • Engaging in back-and-forth “conversation”

Speech/Language

  • Speaking in 2-4 word phrases
  • Asking questions
  • Pretend play with toys (e.g. feeding dolls)

Cognition

  • Pointing to show interest
  • Matching like objects (e.g. matching shapes)
  • Building towers of 4+ blocks
  • Understanding object permanence

Emotion Regulation

  • Expressing a variety of emotions
  • Comforting self with favorite toy or blanket
  • Able to separate from parent

If your toddler consistently displays these types of social, language, cognitive and emotional skills, autism is unlikely. However, bring up any developmental concerns with your pediatrician.

Behaviors That Don’t Necessarily Indicate Autism

Sometimes “quirky” behaviors or delays understandably raise parents’ concerns but aren’t clear evidence of ASD. These include:

Doesn’t Respond to Name Being Called

Your toddler may seem to “ignore” you, especially if absorbed in play. But they interact normally otherwise. Autism concerns arise when lack of response persists alongside other social difficulties.

Delayed Speech

Some late talkers have autism but many don’t. Speech delays can stem from hearing problems, developmental lags, or conditions like apraxia. If your toddler communicates through gestures and babbling, autism probably isn’t the issue.

Strong Interests and Hobbies

It’s common for toddlers to get deeply focused on certain objects or activities. Autistic children also tend to have “highly restricted, fixated interests.” But a single focused interest isn’t enough for an ASD diagnosis.

Preference for Solitary Play

Autistic kids often prefer to play alone. But nonsocial “shy” temperaments aren’t unusual. If solitary play stems from anxiety vs. lack of social skills, autism likely isn’t the reason.

Lining Up Toys

Autistic children may line up toys rigidly. But enjoying order isn’t inherently concerning. If lining up toys replaces pretend play, that’s more worrisome.

In short, no single quirk or delay definitively indicates autism spectrum disorder. An ASD diagnosis requires a cluster of social communication challenges plus repetitive behaviors that impair function.

Signs That Further Evaluation May Be Needed

While autism red flags don’t automatically mean a diagnosis, certain patterns of behavior do warrant seeing a specialist.

Social Interaction Concerns

  • Little interest in other children
  • Minimal response to their name by 12 months
  • Very limited eye contact
  • Doesn’t point to show interest in things
  • Can’t engage in back-and-forth gestures or vocalizations

Communication Delays

  • No babbling or gestures by 12 months
  • No single words by 18 months
  • No 2-word phrases by 24 months
  • Loss of language or social skills at any age

Repetitive Behaviors

  • Repetitive motor mannerisms (flapping, spinning, etc.)
  • Rigid routines or rituals
  • Extremely limited food preferences
  • Unusual sensory-seeking behaviors

If you notice multiple issues in these areas, consult your pediatrician and request a developmental screening. Early intervention can make a vast difference for children with autism or other developmental delays.

Autism Testing and Resources for Toddlers

If autism concerns arise, your pediatrician can refer you to a specialist such as a developmental pediatrician, psychologist, or speech-language pathologist.

Standard autism testing for toddlers includes:

  • Developmental screening
  • Autism-specific evaluation
  • Speech/language assessment
  • Medical exam to rule out related conditions

Some examples of autism screening tools used for toddlers:

  • M-CHAT – Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers
  • ADOS – Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule
  • STAT – Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers & Young Children

Early intervention services like speech, occupational, and behavioral therapies can greatly benefit autistic toddlers. Resources include:

  • Early Intervention – State program for infants/toddlers with disabilities or delays
  • ABA therapy – Applied behavioral analysis – the most researched autism therapy
  • Speech therapy – Improves communication deficits
  • TEACCH – Structured teaching model tailored to autism

In-home ABA therapy provided by experienced professionals can also make a tremendous difference for newly diagnosed toddlers.

Call to Action: Get Started with In-Home ABA Therapy in Maryland

If your toddler shows developmental delays that may indicate autism spectrum disorder, prompt evaluation and treatment is key.

Jade ABA Therapy provides exceptional in-home ABA therapy for toddlers and children in Maryland struggling with autism symptoms.

Our compassionate Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) create fully customized treatment plans to meet each child’s unique needs. We help toddlers master social, communication, self-care and behavioral skills for success in school and life.

Contact us today at (410) 616-0901 to learn more about our ABA therapy programs and schedule your free consultation. We’re confident we can help your toddler overcome developmental challenges and thrive.

The Takeaway on Recognizing Signs of Autism in Toddlers:

While some quirks arouse parents’ concerns, no single trait definitively indicates autism spectrum disorder in toddlers. However, early screening is vital whenever delays in social skills, communication, or restrictive behaviors occur.

Expert assessment and evidence-based therapies as early as possible provide children with the best chance of reaching their full potential. Support is available.

References:

[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

[2] Zwaigenbaum, L., Bauman, M. L., Choueiri, R., Kasari, C., Carter, A., Granpeesheh, D., Mailloux, Z., Roley, S. S., Wagner, S., Fein, D., Pierce, K., Buie, T., Davis, P. A., Newschaffer, C., Robins, D., Wetherby, A., Stone, W. L., Yirmiya, N., Estes, A., … Natowicz, M. R. (2015). Early Intervention for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder Under 3 Years of Age: Recommendations for Practice and Research. Pediatrics, 136(Supplement 1), S60–S81. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2014-3667E

[3] Landa, R. J. (2018). Efficacy of early interventions for infants and young children with, and at risk for, autism spectrum disorders. International review of psychiatry (Abingdon, England), 30(1), 25–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540261.2018.1432574

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