Autism in Children: Early Signs and Interventions Parents Should Know

Early intervention can have a big impact on your child’s development.

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Seeing your young child miss expected milestones, lose a previously acquired skills, or struggle to connect socially or emotionally can be one of the most challenging issues to come to grips with as a parent. But current understanding and treatment of autism spectrum disorders can help you find comprehensive and high-quality support.

“Autism is a social, behavioral, and emotional disorder, and it has a range of symptoms from mild to much more severe,” says New York City-based psychologist Jennifer Harstein, PsyD. Because severity falls on such a wide range, autism is now referred to autism spectrum disorder, which includes Asperger syndrome and Rett syndrome.

Symptoms of Autism

Typically, symptoms of autism can begin to appear in children around 12 to 18 months, though they can set in earlier or later. Children with autism will have challenges with communication, social interaction, and stereotypical behaviors, according to Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

The earliest signs of autism include:

  • Not babbling or pointing by age 1

  • Not speaking single words by 16 months

  • Not responding when name is called

  • Loss of previously acquired skills

  • Poor eye contact

  • And repetitive behavior patterns.

Diagnosing Autism

It’s helpful to be on the lookout for these signs of autism spectrum disorder, but your pediatrician will be closely watching your child and asking you questions at well visits to assess their risk. Around 18 to 24 months, your child’s pediatrician should screen for autism using a questionnaire called an M-CHAT, according to Preeti Parikh, MD, a pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital and chief medical editor at HealthiNation.

If your child’s pediatrician has concerns based on the M-CHAT, they may refer you to a psychologist who specializes in diagnosing autism for a more comprehensive evaluation.

What to Do If Your Child Has Autism

Treating autism begins with what experts call early intervention. This approach uses different types of therapy to address your child’s specific autism symptoms and help them reach developmental milestones. These may include occupational therapy, speech therapy, or even physical therapy, according to Dr. Samuels.

One common treatment during early intervention for autism is addressing sensory-processing deficits. For example, some children with autism might be overwhelmed by certain textures or tactile sensations, according to Yamalis Diaz, PhD, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health. Desensitizing them at a young age can reduce challenges later in life.

Another common therapy for autism is called applied behavioral analysis (ABA). This therapy teaches important behavioral skills using positive reinforcement.

“We have seen some phenomenal outcomes with early intervention in children with autism,” says Alok Patel, MD, a pediatrician at New York Presbyterian-Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “We’ve seen parents that are just blown away themselves by how well they do with their children.”