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Red Flags That Don't Indicate Autism

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Updated August 22, 2013

My child isn't talking yet. Is it autism? I can't get my child to make eye contact. Is it autism? Questions like these are inevitable for any parent, and asking them suggests that you're paying close attention to your child's development. But while autism is in the news, and you may even see headlines suggesting an autism "epidemic," chances are that your child's apparent red flags are merely signs that he or she is developing at his or her own, personal pace. Even if there is an issue, chances are very good that the problem is NOT autism.

Autism spectrum disorders are characterized, not by a single delay or eccentricity, but rather by a "constellation" of symptoms. What's more, those symptoms must not only be present, but must also be significant enough to impair function. And they must not be explainable by another physical, intellectual, or mental disorder.

If your child has any ONE of the symptoms below, chances are very good that they are not diagnosable with autism. If you have any concerns about their development, however, it is always a good idea to consult with your pediatrician.

1. Your Child Doesn't Respond to Your Call

Your child is engaged, responsive, has normal play habits and sensory responses, but doesn't respond to your voice when his back is turned. While children with autism may be unresponsive to your voice, they have many other symptoms as well -- include, but not limited to lack of babbling or use of words, lack of eye contact, lack of engagement, and sensory sensitivities or cravings. If your child is simply not hearing you, there's a good chance that she is either very engaged in her play or has some level of hearing loss. If you find that this is an ongoing issue, it is certainly important to bring up the issue with your pediatrician -- but at the same time, there's no need to worry that your child is autistic.

2. Your Child Developed Symptoms After Early Childhood

Your child developed and behaved typically until he or she reached the age of six, or ten, or fifteen. Then, out of the blue, symptoms such as inattentiveness, compulsiveness, or anxiety emerged. In order to be diagnosed with autism, your child must have developed symptoms at an early age, even if those symptoms only became problematic in later years. A brand new symptom at age 12 or 14 may look a little like autism, but is probably diagnosable as something else.

3. Your Child Prefers "Geeky" Activities

Your son can't get enough Doctor Who. Your daughter is programming computer games at the age of ten. Do these special interests make your child autistic? While many people with autism do love science fiction -- and many do have special talents in the area of technology and math -- these interests are not signs of autism. In fact, they may be signs of creativity and intelligence!

4. Your Child is a Late Talker

It's true that many (but not all!) children with autism are late talkers. Some never learn to talk at all. But if your child is developing normally with the exception that she is not yet using spoken words, it's unlikely that the problem is autism. Speech delays can be the result of many factors, ranging from simple differences in developmental to speed to hearing issues to neurological issues such as aphasia. Many of those issues can be treated or even cured. Meanwhile, there is a good chance that your child's speech will develop just fine, in its own time. If you have concerns, it certainly makes sense to contact your physician, as you will want to address any developmental problems early.

5. Your Child Prefers His Own Company

You've heard that children with autism are introverted, and by and large that's true. But so are many, many other people. If your child is not a social butterfly, there could be many reasons -- some of which are real issues, but many of which are not. For example, some children (and adults) are easily overwhelmed by a great deal of noise, light, or strong smells. Some children (and adults) are more interested in drawing, reading, or building than in running around with their peers. If your child is developing normally (making eye contact, babbling or using words, walking, engaging with you) but simply prefers his own company, chances are he's just a little shy. But if you feel that something more is going on, by all means ask for an evaluation. You may need to address sensory processing issues or some other problems in order to make socialization easier.

6. Your Child Has Problems with Academics

All the other children are learning their letters and numbers, but your child seems to be left behind. Is this a sign of autism? No! In fact, many children with autism are precociously interested in letters and numbers, and many are reading at a very young age. If your child is having a tough time with school, he or she may simply be developing more slowly than his peers. But if you think there's a real issue, it may make sense to have him evaluated for learning disabilities.

7. Your Child Lines Things Up

Children with autism often like to line up, stack, or organize objects and toys. In fact, these activities often take the place of real, symbolic play. But the desire for order is not, in itself, a sign of autism. If your child lines things up, but also plays typically, chances are she simply likes the sense of creating order from chaos. If you have concerns, keep a good eye on your child to see whether she is lining up objects for a reason, or whether it appears to be compulsive. Find out whether she is also playing pretend or other games with you or with her peers. If she is typically developing in other ways, you may have no cause for concern. If you are worried, it is worth your while to consult your pediatrician.

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