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Autism signs & symptoms, qualities & quirks

Nancy Price co-founded SheKnows.com in 1999, and now serves as the site's Executive Editor. In the midst of growing several award-winning websites over the past decade, she also served as the editor-in-chief of two national print magazin...

Autism: Does your kid have it?

Could your child be autistic? Unfortunately, it can be really tough to tell. There is no simple way to diagnose autism -- it is determined by a combination of behaviors, some more intense or problematic than others. In addition, the definition of autism isn't simply based on the presence of certain behaviors, but also the absence of many typical traits. Find out about them here.

Little boy with autism stacking cans - pic by his mama, Nancy J Price

Signs of autism checklist

Note that the list below is not definitive, because no such thing exists. (Just like you couldn't describe every single one of your own behaviors, there is no way to create an completely thorough catalog of autistic symptoms.) But that doesn't mean you can't get a pretty good idea as to whether or not your child should be evaluated for autism!

We suggest putting a checkmark next to any of the signs that seem to apply to your child. This isn't a score sheet, but if your child displays several of these traits, you should talk to your pediatrician. He or she might then give you a referral to a developmental pediatrician or other specialist. (Yet other symptoms are more prevalent in kids with Asperger's Syndrome, another condition on the autistic spectrum.)

Autism - experience, advice, awareness

You can also see the official DSM IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria for Autistic Disorder here.

Does any of this remind you of your child?

Here are some of the most common signs of autism. Do any of them sound familiar?

Your child...

WORDS

  1. ___ does not talk at all.
  2. ___ does not understand what you are saying.
  3. ___ has language skills which have been slow to develop or delayed speech.
  4. ___ speaks in an unusual manner, such as with a singsong voice or monotone robot-like speech.
  5. ___ often repeats the same words or phrases over and over.
  6. ___ repeats words or phrases he's heard, with no regard to or understanding of their meaning (echolalia)
  7. ___ cannot explain what he/she wants.
  8. ___ doesn't respond or seem to recognize when you use his name.
  9. ___ is mostly silent -- not babbling -- at 12 months.
  10. ___ doesn't have any single words by 16 months.
  11. ___ has no spontaneous 2-word phrases (all done, want more, go now, hold me) by 24 months.
  12. ___ has lost any once-held social or communicative skills, regardless of age (regression).

MOVEMENT

  1. ___ often has repetitive movements, such as rocking or hand-flapping.
  2. ___ won't imitate another person's movements or gestures.
  3. ___ likes to spin him or herself around in circles.
  4. ___ has odd movement patterns.
  5. ___ walks on his/her toes.

RELATIONSHIPS

  1. ___ makes little or no eye contact, and it's hard to catch his eye.
  2. ___ doesn't make many (if any) gestures, particularly pointing, waving goodbye or holding out his arms to be held.
  3. ___ might ignore everyone but parents or a regular caregiver.
  4. ___ squirms, cries and/or otherwise resists being held or cuddled.
  5. ___ gets very upset when spoken to or touched by a stranger.
  6. ___ pays not attention to other children and doesn't engage in play with other kids.
  7. ___ may ignore -- or laugh at -- someone crying or angry, with no comprehension or concern.
  8. ___ tunes people out and seems to be in his own little world.
  9. ___ may take things (food, toys, a pen) from another person with no hesitation.
  10. ___ does not realize his impact on others, nor care what anyone else thinks about him.

DAILY LIFE

  1. ___ is very independent for his/her age.
  2. ___ seems to have selective hearing -- like he's deaf sometimes, yet you know he can hear based on his other behavior.
  3. ___ has difficulty moving on to other activities until he completes a task or routine.
  4. ___ becomes upset about even a slight change in environment or of routine.
  5. ___ is not gentle with babies or other children, and seems oblivious to the need.
  6. ___ does not follow directions.
  7. ___ has no sense of danger, and will go into a pool or walk into the middle of a busy street without fear.
  8. ___ cannot/does not show you where he hurts.
  9. ___ does not ask for help when needed.
  10. ___ often repeats the same tasks over and over.
  11. ___ may need a very specific routine or object to calm down.
  12. ___ has difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
  13. ___ only likes a very few number of foods, and refuses to try new foods -- sometimes refusal is only based on a glance or touch.

PLAY

  1. ___ prefers to play alone.
  2. ___ spends a lot of time stacking and/or lining up toys and other things, or keeps them in a very specific order.
  3. ___ doesn't play with toys in a "typical" way (examples: rolling a train along a track, throwing a ball through a hoop).
  4. ___ does not engage at all in pretend play, such as acting like a toy faucet works or that a bowl is a hat.
  5. ___ may be fascinated by a specific part of an object (examples: the wheels on a toy car or a doll's hand).
  6. ___ can focus for long periods of time on an activity or pastime, such as playing with Lego or watching TV.
  7. ___ shows unusual attachments to toys and other items (examples: always carries around a certain special t-shirt or a set of toys).
  8. ___ can be very active, enjoying the physical sensory stimulation of jumping, swinging or stomping.
  9. ___ often becomes obsessed with one particular book, piece of music, movie or TV show.

OTHER UNUSUAL CHARACTERISTICS

  1. ___ has prolonged or particularly intense tantrums.
  2. ___ resists or does not understand the concept of potty training.
  3. ___ may be unusually sensitive to light, sound and/or touch.
  4. ___ might appear to be oblivious to pain.
  5. ___ sometimes laughs out of the blue with no obvious stimuli.
  6. ___ is fearful of certain things or places for no discernible reason.
  7. ___ does some things early compared to other kids, such as writing or creating patterns.
  8. ___ may find a mirror in order to observe himself crying.
  9. ___ seems uninterested in what is going on around him.
  10. ___ benefits from firm pressure (such as from heavy blankets or being tucked in tightly)
  11. ___ must follow very specific rituals and routines, often self-created.


This list was compiled based on feedback from teachers, medical researchers, health professionals as well as the families of kids with autism. If you have suggestions or additions, please post them below!

For more on autism, see:

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