Understanding Autism -- Symptoms

What Are the Symptoms of Autism?

A child with autism spectrum disorder may have problems in three different areas -- socializing, communicating, and behavior.

Each child with an autism spectrum disorder will have his or her own individual pattern of behavior: Sometimes, a child's development is delayed from birth; other children develop normally before suddenly losing social or language skills. In some children, a loss of language is the impairment; in others, unusual behaviors (like spending hours lining up toys) predominate.

Parents are usually the first to notice something is wrong. Unfortunately, there is often a significant delay in parents bringing their concerns to the doctor and in doctors referring a child to a specialist. Parents should trust their instincts if they feel their child is not developing normally.

Some red flags are:

  • No babbling by 9 months
  • No pointing or gestures by 12 months
  • Not responding to their name by 12 months of age
  • No single words by 16 months
  • Lack of pretend play by 18 months
  • No two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Any loss of language or social skills at any age

Other signs of autism to look for include:

  • Extreme difficulty in learning language.
  • Inappropriate response to people: A child with autism may avoid eye contact, resist being picked up or cuddled, and seem to tune out the world.
  • Inability or reduced ability to play cooperatively with other children or to make friends.
  • Inability to understand other people's feelings.
  • Need for a rigid, highly structured routine -- and being very distressed by changes in routines
  • Extreme hyperactivity or unusual passivity, and extreme resistance to change.
  • Aggressive, self-injurious behavior.
  • Repetitive body movements, including pacing, hand flicking, twisting, spinning, rocking, or hitting oneself.
  • Insensitivity to pain or lack of response to cold or heat.
  • Impulsive behavior and no real fear of dangers.
  • An unusual attachment to inanimate objects such as toys, strings, or spinning objects.
  • Frequent crying and tantrums for no apparent reason.
  • Peculiar speech patterns: A child with autism may use words without understanding their meanings.
  • Abnormal responses to sensations such as light, sound, and touch: At times, a child with autism may appear deaf or may be extremely distressed by everyday noises or repeat words or phrases over and over.
  • Some of these symptoms occur in children with other disabilities. Symptoms can change as the child grows older.


Call Your Doctor About Autism If:

  • Your infant or child resists cuddling and doesn't respond to his or her environment or to other people
  • By about the age of 1 year, your child is not pointing to objects, bringing items to you, or engaging in simple interactions such as "peek-a-boo"
  • By the age of 16 months, your child is not using any words or attempting to communicate
  • Your child bangs his or her head or demonstrates self-injurious behavior or aggression on a regular basis
  • Your child demonstrates unusually repetitive behavior, such as repeatedly opening and closing doors, turning a toy car upside down and repeatedly spinning its wheels, or lining up objects or toys

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on March 04, 2015



Parker, S., Zuckerman, B., and Augustyn, M. (editors). 

Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: A Handbook for Primary Care, Lippincott, 2005.

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