Health A-Z

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At birth, a child with ASD often appears normal.

Symptoms may appear as early as the first year of life. But it may not be until the child is 2 or 3 years old that the parents realize something is not quite right.

Infants with autism spectrum disorder:

  • May respond abnormally to being touched.

    • Instead of cuddling when they are picked up, they may stiffen or go limp.

  • May not show normal developmental behaviors during the first year of life. For example:

    • Smiling at the sound of their mother's voice

    • Pointing out objects to catch someone's attention

    • Reaching out to others with their hands

    • Attempting one-syllable conversations

    • May not maintain eye contact

    • May appear unable to distinguish parents from strangers

    • Typically show little interest in others.

Symptoms vary from mild to severe.

Some behaviors associated with autism include:

  • Disordered play A toddler with ASD:

    • Usually ignores other children and prefers to play alone.

    • Usually does not engage in make-believe play.

    • May spend hours:

      • Repeatedly laying out objects in lines

      • Sitting silently in an apparent trance-like state

      • Concentrating on only one object or topic

Any attempt to divert the child can provoke an emotional outburst.

  • Disordered speech A child with ASD:

    • May not speak much or may remain silent.

    • When the child does speak, the words may be an echo of what another person said.

    • Speech patterns may be different.

      • Instead of saying, "I want a sandwich," the child may ask, "Do you want a sandwich?"

  • Repetitive behaviors A child with ASD may perform repetitive behaviors:

    • Repeating the same phrase or a particular motion

      • Clapping, finger snapping, rocking, swaying and hand flapping are common.

  • Abnormal behaviors Children with ASD may:

    • Develop obsessive routines.

      • Wanting to take the same route to school every day

      • Turning around before entering a room.

    • Become intensely preoccupied with something

    • Become hyperactive, aggressive, destructive or impulsive

    • Intentionally injure themselves

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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