Signs of Autism in Infants and Babies

Caucasian mother comforting crying baby son
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It's easy to understand why one of the biggest fears many parents have is that their child will develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For one thing, the number of kids diagnosed with ASD has been steadily increasing. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in 68 children had been diagnosed with ASD; in 2000, the incidence was one in 150.

Some experts believe the rise in cases of ASD reflects a growing understanding of what the disorder looks like, as well as changes in criteria for diagnosing it, making it easier to diagnose existing cases of ASD rather than a brewing epidemic. But even if autism isn't "really" on the rise, the prospect of dealing with the array of challenges a child with autism faces is daunting. If you're a parent who's worried your child is showing signs of autism, or who simply want to make sure you know what to look out for in the future, it's helpful to become familiar with what the early signs of autism are.

It's also vital to understand that in general if a baby is growing and developing normally, having just one sign or behavior associated with ASD probably doesn't mean she has the disorder. It's more important to pay attention to how she's progressing and whether she's meeting the normal developmental milestones that are expected at her age.

Signs of Autism

One frustrating thing about ASD is that often it's not diagnosed until a child is around age 3. This means that a baby with autism who might benefit from early intervention won't get that vital treatment as early as she could.

However, some experts believe that many children with autism begin to show early signs of ASD well before their third birthday. Signs of autism in a baby include:

  • Not smiling by 6 months
  • Not babbling, pointing, or using other gestures by 12 months
  • Not using single words by age 16 months
  • Not using two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Having a regression in development, with loss of language or social skills
  • Arching away from being held by a parent or caregiver to avoid physical contact
  • Avoiding eye contact with others
  • Seeming not to notice when people come and go 

Keep in mind that some signs and symptoms of autism overlap with those of other conditions. For example, back arching may be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux rather than autism, although a baby with reflux typically will have other symptoms such as fussiness and spitting up.

Trusting Your Instincts

If for any reason you feel your baby may have signs of early autism—whether she's showing some of the behaviors described above or you just have a feeling something isn't right—talk to your pediatrician about having her evaluated. One of the frustrating things that occur when parents think something is wrong with their child's development is that they may be told "not to worry" or that they "should just wait".

Experts think that it is better for parents to trust their instincts and get their child evaluated if they think that they aren't developing normally. The website First recommends taking these four steps if you're concerned:

  1. Put together a checklist of the developmental milestones you feel your baby isn't reaching to share with your pediatrician. Be specific about what you're seeing (or not seeing): "My baby doesn't respond when I say her name," for example.
  2. Be clear about your specific concerns. If the doctor suggests taking a wait-and-see approach, ask for a referral to a developmental pediatrician.
  3. After your child has been screened, ask as many questions as it takes for you to understand the results, what they mean, and how best to proceed.
  4. If the screening shows your baby may be at risk for developing ASD, follow up. It may be hard to believe or accept this possibility, but don't let your emotions prevent you from getting help as soon as possible. Early intervention may make an enormous difference in how well your child responds to treatment.
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