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Symptoms of Autism


Updated June 09, 2011

What Are the Symptoms of Autism?

They say "if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism," and they are absolutely right! That's because the appearance of autism can vary from person to person. One person with autism may be very verbal, bright and engaged, while another is non-verbal, intellectually challenged and almost entirely self-absorbed.

In addition, people with autism seem to be more prone to other problems not listed in the diagnostic criteria. These problems include sensory dysfunction, sleep disorders, self-abusive behavior and more. The only symptoms all people with autism do have in common across the spectrum are challenges, disabilities, or delays in the area of social communication.

With such a wide range of possible symptoms, how is it possible to identify a child with autism?

To understand what autism looks like, you can take a look at the diagnostic criteria used by doctors and other practitioners, which is published in the official diagnostic manual. You might find it more practical, however, to look through the more user friendly list from The National Institute of Mental Health (see below). While this list is a useful starting place, it's not a substitute for professional evaluation. A child may well reach his milestones at an early age and still qualify for an autism spectrum diagnosis -- or, on the other hand, appear to have several symptoms and not be autistic at all. That's because autism spectrum disorders look different in every child, and while some children may develop typically for a while and then develop symptoms, others may have obvious symptoms from infancy.

Very early indicators that require evaluation by an expert include:

Later indicators include:

What Should Parents Do If They See These Signs in Their Child?

It's important to understand that no one or two or these symptoms alone is an indication that your child is autistic. What's more, it can be very tough for a parent to determine, for example, how much "lining up of toys" is excessive, or how much smiling is normal. There is also the possibility that some of these symptoms can be caused by physical issues; for example, not responding to a name could very well be a symptom of a hearing impairment.

To properly diagnose autism, professionals use a set of specific tests that actually measure a child's symptoms. They may also decide that your child should undergo testing for hearing impairment or speech issues that are unrelated to autism. For that reason, parents who are concerned about their child should take their concerns to their pediatrician. If their pediatrician is not able to help, and parents still have worries, it may be time to make an appointment with a developmental pediatrician or other diagnostician.

Learn More About Autism Symptoms, Types of Autism and Autism Diagnosis


The National Autistic Society, London, England. "Do children with autism spectrum disorders have a special relationship with Thomas the Tank Engine and, if so, why?" Research undertaken by Aidan Prior Communications. February, 2002.

National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders) A detailed booklet that describes symptoms, causes, and treatments, with information on getting help and coping. 2004.

Greenspan, Stanley and Weider, Serena. "Engaging Autism." Da Capo Press:2006.

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