Recognizing the Signs of Autism in Babies

While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is usually diagnosed in older children, there are some signs of autism in babies. Here's what you need to know.

Baby boy on the floor with toys looking off into distance.

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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 the signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when their baby is around six 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's how to recognize 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 one in 36 children today.

What Causes Autism?

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 the following:

  • Having a sibling with autism
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Pregnancy or delivery complications
  • Certain genetic or chromosomal conditions
  • Being conceived by parents with advanced age

It's important to note that there's no link between vaccines and autism.

Baby boy on the floor with toys looking off into distance.

ronnachaipark/Getty Images

What Are the Signs of Autism in Infants ?

While most children are older when they are diagnosed, some parents can recognize the signs of autism in babies, depending on the symptoms and their severity. Of course, all babies develop on different timelines. But it can be helpful to know the potential red flags to look for when it comes to development.

For example, babies with autism sometimes fail to communicate through sounds or gestures, and may not respond to social stimulation. "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."

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, an associate psychologist at Positive Developments. Another social or developmental factor may be at play.

Signs of autism in babies age 0 to 3 months

Signs of autism in babies age 4 to 7 months

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

Signs of autism in babies age 8 to 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

What To Do If Your Baby Exhibits Signs of Autism

If you notice some of the signs of autism in your baby, Dr. Frazier advises scheduling a visit to your pediatrician. 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 children with autism 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.

How to Handle an Autism Diagnosis

While an autism diagnosis may seem worrisome, many children with autism lead happy and fulfilling lives. Learning your child is on the spectrum is not a bad thing, nor should it be viewed in a negative light. Still, you may be wondering how you can best handle your child's condition.

Autism Treatments and Therapies

Depending on your child’s symptoms, one or more of these therapies may be useful:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Behavior management therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Educational interventions
  • Medication

Animal therapy, art therapy, and chiropractic care can also be helpful.

That said, it's important to note that many autistic people do not want to be "treated" or "cured." Rather, they view their diagnosis as a difference that makes them exactly who they are—and who they were meant to be.

Outlook for Babies Diagnosed with Autism

If your child has been diagnosed with autism, you are probably wondering what this means for them—and how it will impact their life. And while there are no guarantees or set answers, according to the Autism Research Institute (ARI), "the prognosis for a child with autism... can be influenced by early intervention and treatment. For years autism was thought to be irreversible. While autism is a lifelong condition, there are now evidence-based treatments that can help and support people with autism."

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