Early Signs of Autism in Babies

Some of the early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be detected in babies under 12 months old. Here's what you need to know.

Baby on Colorful Quilted Blanket
Photo: Cultura Motion/Shutterstock

Watching your baby grow is an unforgettable experience. But while every child develops at their own speed, failing to reach certain milestones can raise red flags. Some parents recognize signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when their baby is around 6 to 12 months old—and maybe even earlier, says Thomas Frazier, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, autism researcher, and chief science officer of Autism Speaks. Here are the early signs of autism in babies and why prompt diagnosis is key to managing the condition.

What Is Autism?

Autism is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that can affect social skills like playing, learning, and communicating. Individual cases of autism fall on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that autism affects 1 in 44 children today.

Doctors don't know exactly what causes autism, but it's believed to be a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Certain circumstances also increase a child's chance of developing autism. For example, "if you have a sibling with autism, your risk of developing it increases to about 20% on average," says Dr. Frazier. Other risk factors include premature birth, low birth weight, delivery complications, and being conceived by parents with advanced maternal and paternal age.

Signs of Autism in Babies

Some parents recognize autism signs in their child as early as 6 months of age, depending on the symptoms and their severity. And while it's always important to keep in mind that all babies develop on different timelines, it can be helpful to know the potential red flags to look for when it comes to development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has also recently updated its screening guidelines for children to help doctors better identify autism at earlier ages, so staying up-to-date with your child's well visits can also be helpful, as your child's pediatrician will use the latest screening tools as well

"Pay attention to whether or not the baby is reacting to social information and the environment. Within the first year of life, babies start to babble and use gestures like pointing," says Dr. Frazier, adding that babies may also smile at their caregivers. "Baby noises should have some social function as well, and they should try communicating with parents."

Babies with autism sometimes fail to communicate through sounds or gestures, and may not respond to social stimulation.

It's important to note that the following criteria aren't conclusive evidence of autism. "They're simply things we look for to determine if we need to further assess the baby," says Mandi Silverman, Psy.D., senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute. Another social or developmental factor may be at play.

Autism signs by 3 months

  • Not following moving objects with their eyes: "Babies at high risk for autism don't follow caregivers as they move in the visual field," says Dr. Frazier. "They may be more intrigued by something like a blanket."
  • Sensitivity to loud noises
  • Not grasping and holding onto objects
  • Limited facial expression
  • Limited babbling or delayed speech
  • Poor facial recognition (especially new faces)

Autism signs by 7 months

  • Disinterest in certain sounds (e.g., not turning to locate where sounds are coming from)
  • Perceived lack of affection
  • May demonstrate limited verbal expression (e.g., not laughing or making squealing sounds)
  • May not reach for objects
  • May demonstrate limited facial expressions and/or emotional reactivity (e.g., not smiling on their own)

Autism signs by 12 months

  • May not crawl
  • May avoid eye contact
  • Limited or incomprehensible speech
  • May refrain from using gestures such as waving or shaking their head
  • May not point to objects or pictures
  • May appear unbalanced or unable to stand even when supported

My Child Has Signs of Autism—Now What?

If your child has signs of autism, Dr. Frazier advises scheduling a visit to your pediatrician right away. You'll discuss developmental concerns, and the doctor will evaluate your baby for autism. "We have evidence that suggests the quicker you can get a diagnosis, the earlier you can enroll in developmental and behavioral interventions," says Dr. Frazier.

Early intervention is meant to help autistic children develop to their own full potential. The brain can respond to treatments more effectively at younger ages, which can make interventions more effective. As your child gets older, those interventions might include speech therapy, occupational therapy, mental health counseling, and whatever else experts believe will help your child thrive. The ultimate goal is "making the symptoms more manageable and enhancing life as much as possible," says Dr. Silverman.

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