Autism Symptoms and Behaviors: 15 Symptoms To Monitor

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen

April 23, 2022

Autism symptoms and behaviors differ widely from one child to another. However, some common symptoms and behaviors can help parents and caregivers understand their child's developmental delays and connect with experts to assist them in overcoming the challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.

What is autism?

Autism, also known as an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that causes social, motor, and other challenges such as repetitive behavior, problematic social interactions, restricted interests, communication deficits and maladaptive behaviors. Typically, children on the autism spectrum will have a combination of some or all of these symptoms, with differing severity levels. 

Because autism will appear very different from child to child, the initial step in finding each child’s care is to focus on the child’s unique set of challenges and needs. According to a report by Autism Speaks, approximately 40 percent of children with autism have verbal issues, and about one-third of them also have some intellectual disability.

Symptoms of autism in children

The medical community has yet to conclusively explain why autism forms in some children and not in others. However, numerous environmental and genetic risk factors are associated with autism developmental disorder. 

For example, autism usually runs in families. In addition, according to a recent study, approximately 15 to 20 percent of children on the autism spectrum, one gene or chromosome disturbance is responsible for autism disorder development. 

Furthermore, prenatal exposure to certain medicines, low birth weight, and premature birth also increase the odds of children with autism. Some common symptoms and behaviors of children with autism are as follows: 

  1. Not pointing at play articles when interested in them
  2. Not looking at items when someone else signals at them
  3. Difficulty bonding with others or being interested in other people but not understanding how to speak, play or communicate
  4. Not able to make eye contact and wanting to play or perform activities by themselves
  5. Difficulty understanding the emotions of others and speaking on their own 
  6. Not enjoying being carried or cuddled
  7. Seeming oblivious when someone talks to them but detecting other sounds
  8. Repeating phrases or words said to them
  9. Difficulty communicating their needs
  10. Not playing "pretend" activities
  11. Repeating their actions again and again
  12. Difficulty adjusting to new routines
  13. Unusual responses to sensory triggers, such as smells, sounds, or tastes 
  14. Loss of aptitudes they used to have
  15. Abnormal or non-age-appropriate maladaptive behaviors

Challenges faced by children with autism

Children with autism might not attain the same developmental milestones as their peers, or they might go through the loss of previously acquired social or speech aptitudes. For example, a 3-year-old child without autism might show interest in a simple game or enjoy interactive activities with other children. 

Conversely, children with autism might face trouble communicating or feeling involved with others or may not like playing simple games altogether. Toddlers or small children might also engage in repetitive behaviors, compulsively eat non-food items, or have difficulty sleeping, for example. 

Children with autism may find it challenging to succeed without a structured environment or fixed routine. If you think your child is exhibiting such behaviors, it is best to work closely with a therapist to help them strengthen their skills and perform tasks independently.

How does autism impact children?

Impaired effective communication

For children to speak effectively, they must remain capable of using and interpreting verbal (spoken) and nonverbal (non-spoken) language. 

  • Verbal interaction refers to using speech (words, stories, sentences) in a relevant context and timing to communicate with other people.
  • Nonverbal communication refers to using and understanding hand gestures, body posture, facial expressions, and head orientation to convey a message. 

Children with autism usually face challenges in understanding language or using words in the appropriate context and timing. They likewise find it hard to comprehend nonverbal cues related to communication and language. In addition, some children on the autism spectrum might lack the intention or desire to communicate with others altogether.

Impaired social interactions

Social skills are the capability a child has to communicate and interact with others. To maintain suitable social interactions, children must have the inspiration, concentration, and behaviors required. For example, smiling or making eye contact, or using the proper expression or gestures to initiate a conversation. Another significant aspect of social communication is to have the capability to share interests or feelings, such as toddlers who come up to their parents to show the toys that interest them.

Developing and maintaining friendships demands interpreting, processing, internalizing, and social communications with others which they can simulate later in equivalent social situations. This process requires lots of concentration and interpretation of both spoken and nonverbal language.

For children with autism, social communications are generally rare or atypical. They naturally do not require attention from parents or caregivers, except when they must fulfill a requirement. Most of the time, they are not interested in friends and prefer to play by themselves.

When is the right time to seek therapies? 

Children with autism usually display patterns of repetitive behaviors, restricted interests or activities, opposition to change, and hypo or hypersensitivity to a sensory stimulus. These signs could be present during initial childhood and are especially apparent when they last to school age. If you notice any of the following concerning symptoms in your child, it may be time to seek therapy:

Concerning behaviors for younger children

  • Repetitive motor characteristics like fingers or hand flapping, face or body slapping, head-banging, self-biting, rocking, spinning, staggering, walking on toes most of the time
  • Irregular sleeping patterns or does not feel sleepy at all
  • Usually lines up the exact number of items in the same pattern but does not know what the object or toy represents
  • Difficulty switching from one activity to another or displaying resistance to change 
  • Displays frequent blowups and is consistently fussy
  • Overly selective eater and only consumes a particular food or very few food items — usually only consuming one brand of specific food and refusing to eat foods if it comes from a different brand
  • Excessive obsession with uncommon objects like vacuum cleaners, ceiling fans, etc.

Concerning behaviors for older children

  • Limited interests despite reasonable encouragement and exposure
  • Obsession over a particular subject and is always speaking about it, or redundant questioning about a specific topic
  • Preference for exact routines and does not perform well with change
  • Obsession with a few or distinctive activities, doing them numerous times during the day
  • Interactions with toys instead of the complete toy but doesn’t know the overall use or function of that toy
  • Excessive sensitivity or not receptive to sounds, smells, lights, and touch
  • Overpowered or confused easily

The bottom line 

Children with autism can face stigma and suffer various motor, social, and maladaptive behavior challenges. It is why they need a nurturing environment from parents, teachers, and therapists to lead a happy and independent life. 

At Songbird, we are a team of passionate therapists and provide children with autism therapy, uniquely tailored to them.