5 Signs That Should Get You Worried About Autism

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stressed mom. Getty

Are you worried about autism? Should you be?

The truth is, there are a lot of "autism-like" signs which, while they may be mildly concerning, aren't worthy of real anxiety. For example...

Your child is a little behind the curve when it comes to social skills. 

Your child is a bit shy, awkward, or tongue-tied around her peers.

Your three-year-old's vocabulary isn't quite as large as the guidelines suggest.

But if these signs don't rise to the level of being red flags for autism, when should you be concerned? Here are a few signs that are specific to autism or are much more common in autism than in other related disorders:

  1. Your toddler is not communicating -- period. Many children are slow to talk. In many cases, late talkers catch up; in other cases they are able to catch up or at least improve significantly when provided with treatment for physical and/or neurological disorders such as hearing loss or apraxia of speech. Some children, when taught sign language, can use signs to communicate before they are able to speak fluently. Still others may use non-verbal communication (pointing, pulling, etc.) to show what they want. If your toddler is not using any techniques for communicating with others, you should take action as quickly as possible. There really is a window of opportunity for building basic communication skills, and that window is open for only a few years.
  1. Your child has several of the signs of autism. Late or idiosyncratic speech, social awkwardness, over or under-reaction to light, sound, or smell, a compelling need for routine or sameness...  each of these are symptoms of autism, but none of them alone is a true red flag. When several of these symptoms combine, however, it may be time for greater concern.
  1. Your child is gaining disconnected skills. Children with autism learn and grow. Unlike most children, however, they are likely to gain quite a few "splinter skills" -- that is, very specific skills that have no connection to the wider world and thus are not "generalized." For example, many children learn the alphabet from Sesame Street and then begin using the letters to form their name, or begin to recognize letters in signs around town. Children with autism may learn the alphabet in the same way, but while they can point to the B when watching Sesame Street, they may have no understanding that the letter exists in other places or contexts.
  2. Your child is "using" rather than engaging with other people. Children with intellectual challenges, hearing loss,  and other disorders may have a hard time communicating with spoken language -- they may use motions, grunts, or other means -- but they will find a way to show that they enjoy social attention and engagement. Children with autism, however, rarely engage with other people just because they enjoy socialization. Rather than asking for social attention, they ask only for food or other necessities. Once they have what they need, they may walk away.
  1. Your child has an unusual need for routine and/or sameness. Children, in general, tend to like routine and structure. Children with autism, however, can get terribly upset when routines are tweaked -- even a little. Different foods, different routes to the same destination, different routines in the classroom can all lead to extreme anxiety and even "melt downs." Children with autism are also more likely than their typical peers to, for example, line up toys in the same order in the same place over and over again. When interrupted, they are also much more likely to get upset.

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