In the United States, the average age of a child diagnosed with autism is over 4 years old. While that may seem young, that average is actually far older than experts say is ideal. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as 18 months. Identifying this disorder early matters because the sooner parents and guardians can begin autism treatment for their child, the better the outcomes for the child and the family.
As the medical community learns more about autism, parents have increasing opportunities to learn the key indicators of this disorder. Today, we know clues that arise as early as a child’s first birthday.
To a large extent, these early signals center around communication. While communication delays do not always indicate autism, parents should be informed about what to watch for in their young children.
Communication at 12 to 18 Months
By their 18-month mark, most children have developed a small vocabulary. Because children develop at different rates, however, this is not always true.
That said, parents should observe how their sons and daughters attempt to interact with them. Neurotypical children with limited to no vocabulary at 18 months may use hand signals or other gestures to communicate with their parents. They may seek out eye contact or point and grab, for example. Children with autism, however, usually exhibit little to no effort to communicate with the people around them.
Similarly, children with autism generally do not respond to attempts to communicate with them. Neurotypical children will learn their names and turn their heads to the sound when called, for example, while a child with autism generally will not. If you have ever wondered if your child has hearing problems, it could potentially be communication barriers presented by autism, not their ears, at the heart of the issue.
Other Communication Clues That Can Signal Autism
As they get older and begin communicating more, many children with autism display specific communication styles. As a parent, you should be on the lookout for:
- Trouble with conversation. If you notice that your child seems to be particularly challenged to follow a conversation or continually redirects back to a limited set of topics, it could be indicative of autism. Notice if your child seems to have difficulty responding to open-ended questions or following along with new topics.
- Echolalia. Many parents first notice that their child may be living with autism because the child repeats phrases back to them, potentially even in the same tone of voice. This echoing of things exactly as they hear it is called echolalia. Echolalia can also cause children to continuously use phrases from movies, books, shows, and songs.
- Limited engagement. Neurotypical children are generally very quick to point out — oftentimes literally — things that catch their interest. It is not uncommon to see a neurotypical child gesturing excitedly or dragging a parent over to see something that caught their eye. Children with autism, on the other hand, are generally slower to share their excitement. If you notice that your daughter or son rarely shows things to you, monitor their communication to determine if you should talk to a doctor.
Diagnosing Young Children With Autism
Far too many parents delay bringing their children to a doctor even when they have a hunch something may be atypical because they fear bad news. However, the sooner you support your child with the care they need, the more likely they are to be able to enjoy a happy, productive life. This is true with any health condition or disorder, including autism.
If the communication clues we just outlined sound familiar to you, trust your instincts. Talk with your family doctor and advocate for your child to get further care as needed. Seeking out the right support for their development makes all the difference as they grow up.
If you want to talk to a team of experts who specialize in caring for children with autism, contact our team at Stride Autism Centers today.