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Autism appears early in life and is a lifelong condition.

An autism spectrum disorder can be reliably diagnosed by age 2, and sometimes sooner. Some early signs of autism are noticeable by 8 to 10 months of age; others appear as the child gets older. A small percentage of children with autism experience regression – a loss of previously developed skills — usually between their first and second birthday.

As a parent, you know your child’s developmental milestones, when he spoke his first word or took his first step. If these kinds of developmental milestones seem different from other children the same age, the first step is to see your child’s pediatrician.

Screening for autism

Your pediatrician has probably already recommended regular well-child checkups. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all children be specifically screened for autism at their 18- and 24-month-old well-baby checkups. A pediatrician can use these screens to look for delays in developmental milestones that might indicate an autism spectrum disorder.

If you think your child is showing some of the early signs of autism, schedule a visit with your pediatrician whether it’s time for a well-child visit or not. Your doctor can screen your baby for autism by age 18 months. At this point it is also a good idea to have other routine tests, such as a hearing test and a test for the presence of lead. Some language and developmental delays can be a result of these factors rather than autism.

Your pediatrician may use an autism-specific screen. During this screening, you will be asked questions about the child’s behavior and development, and a professional will observe the child doing different activities.

If the autism-specific screen shows signs of an ASD, the next step is a more extensive evaluation by a team of specialists. Because ASDs are so complex, it is common for professionals from a variety of fields to be involved. These professionals may be from psychology, speech therapy, child psychiatry, neurology, and pediatrics. This team can provide a thorough assessment of your child’s development and work with the family to determine the best educational and treatment plan for the child.

Because autism can be diagnosed at a young age, it is possible to begin autism treatment early, before a child enters preschool or kindergarten. Starting a plan early gives your child a chance to make gains in communication, social skills, and behavior.

Early signs of autism

If you are concerned that your child may be exhibiting some of the following autism signs, see your pediatrician for a screening.

Communication and language:

  • Delay or sudden loss in development of language
  • Unusual use of language, such as an unusually small or large vocabulary, speaking in an unusual tone or rhythm, or repetitive use of a word or phrase
  • Difficulty reading nonverbal cues such as facial cues or tone of voice
  • Difficulty initiating or holding a conversation

Social interaction:

  • Little to no eye contact
  • Appears to prefer to play alone
  • Does not respond to name when called
  • Difficulty regulating emotions; outbursts and/or inappropriate emotional responses to situations


  • Repetitive behavior, such as rocking and hand-flapping
  • Develops daily routines that, when interrupted, cause distress
  • Little or no pretend play; shows more interest in the way a toy works or its parts rather than using the toy in imaginative play

Diagnosing asperger's syndrome

ASDs can now be reliably diagnosed very early in childhood. However, screening and assessment have improved over the years, and there are some people on the spectrum who are adults now who were never diagnosed as children.

A New York Times article from 2004 profiled several people in their 40s and 50s who were diagnosed well into adulthood with Asperger’s syndrome. It describes their journey, including the challenges, relief at finding a diagnosis, and ways they have connected with other self-described “Aspies” and improved their relationships.

If you think this describes you, or someone you know, the first step is to see your doctor.

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Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss
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Hilary Sparrow
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