Early Behavior and Communication Challenges to Look for in Babies and Toddlers
The sound of the first cry. The first time the eyes blink open. The first tooth that pokes through. The first bite of food (more than likely followed by the first spit of food). The first word is spoken aloud. Those first steps.
There are many ‘firsts’ parents look for, whether it be signs that the baby finally arrived, or developmental milestones as the kid grows. The firsts are exciting, but they aren’t everything. For a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or developmental disabilities, some of these firsts might be missed or delayed. For another differently abled child, milestones might occur, but other behaviors are skipped or appear in a separate manner than those of their peers. And that’s all ok!
While parents should not let themselves become consumed with hitting these milestones, it’s important to observe your child and how he or she acts and communicates – and not just for bragging rights. Early identification of autism and other delays is key when it comes to a child’s overall development.
But what are the early indicators of autism, and when should you start looking for them? Throughout your child’s first 12-24 months, below are some things to watch and discuss with your pediatrician. Please remember this list is not exhaustive. These potential symptoms are also not holistic, nor are they mutually exclusive. The list simply serves as a starting point to recognize possible characteristics of a child on the spectrum and guide you to the proper topics for your doctor.
Here are some signs and symptoms of ASD in children:
Absence of smiles
In infants, we often see what we call “social smiles.” This is one of the earliest ways a baby tries to communicate, so practice lots of smiles and watch to see if he or she reciprocates over the first few months.
Avoidance of eye contact As parents, we don’t need an excuse to look into those baby blues (and browns and greens and greys!). During the first few weeks, babies are still getting used to their new surroundings and learning how their bodies work, including their eyes. Soon after the first weeks of life, stare deeply at them and most babies will eventually begin to lock eyes with you. As your baby gets older, track whether they make or avoid eye contact. Also, watch whether their eyes follow objects when you point to them.
Communication challenges Some parents become obsessed with the number of words their child says and by what age. We do not recommend going that route. While we don’t want to put a specific timeline on communication, there are a few things to observe. Does your baby babble or try to imitate sounds? After waking in the morning, riding in the car, or while playing with stuffed animals, babies often babble on their own as a stepping stone to talking. Next, listen for words, including interjections, like “uh oh” and animal noises like, “moo.” After that, two-word phrases. Around the same time, also check to see if your child seems to listen or respond when you speak. The conversation usually comes in stages, so if one or all of these steps is missing along the way, there may be a delay in verbal communication.
Preference of alone time over parallel play
Toddlers often engage in parallel play. They may not understand sharing at this age, but they are typically comfortable being near another toddler when playing. During preschool years, play typically becomes more interactive. Monitor whether your child prefers to be alone rather than playing next to you or other kids.
Lack of group play other kids may be a sign of autism.
Difficulties with change
Big changes can be frustrating for anyone; especially for children who are learning how things work and flow. But if your child becomes extremely upset by little changes in routine or their surroundings – for example, taking a different route during your morning walk – it may be a sign of something more.
Sensory issues Sensory challenges usually occur in older children rather than babies or toddlers, since the younger children are still getting used to their senses. This symptom can appear as really strong or unusual reactions to lights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. As one example, this could mean a limited diet due to textures, such as only soft foods, or no soft foods at all.
As your child gets older, keep an eye on repetitive actions. This is not necessarily mimicking or echoing words, which should be expected in babies. Sometimes called “stimming” and “stereotypy,” this is more along the lines of flapping hands, spinning in circles, or maybe something less noticeable with their fingers that happens over and over again.
Another possible sign of autism in older children is restricted interests – extreme interest in a specific topic. The range of what this can look like is endless since is it unique to each child. One example is a child who knows the alphabet. He is hyper-focused on the letters and the order of them – B always goes after A and before C – but there’s no meaning of them to him beyond that. Another child might be incredibly into dinosaurs; knowing every type and pronunciation. It becomes all about knowing the information, rather than developing a deeper understanding or interest in conversing with others about it.
Lose skills they once had This is where it can get tricky. Sometimes a child may seem to master a skill early in life, such as talking or eating, but then stop doing it all together. This is why it’s important to continue to play with and watch how your child grows.
If you have a concern with any of these areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child has autism or any other developmental disorder. It may mean your child could benefit from a tweak in routine, or maybe they have a slight delay in one area. Either way, it’s important to discuss these challenges and any other questions you may have with the pediatrician.