Autism Spectrum Disorder

What Does Autism Spectrum Disorder Look Like in Children?

An American child born today has a one- to two-percent chance of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and exhibiting its trademark delays in social and communication skills, according to the National Health Statistics Reports. Learn how to identify the signs in your child.

Teacher lecturing student in the hall about behavior during the new school year
Sad child on stairs with teacher

Severe forms of autism are often recognized and diagnosed in the first two years of a child’s life, whereas milder forms are diagnosed when developmental delays become apparent at school. Children with ASD often exhibit problems with social interactions, trouble with verbal and nonverbal communication, plus repetitive or ritualistic behaviors. These symptoms fall in a range, or spectrum, and vary in severity from mild to severe. Some high-functioning individuals experience milder challenges associated with ASD, whereas others exhibit severe impairments, like impaired spoken language, that interfere with everyday life.

Children with autism don’t intuitively grasp the social world; their social skills may lag behind those of other children. They may have limited imaginative play skills, take things literally, and not use gestures to communicate — all ASD-related behaviors that become evident during play and at school. Other common symptoms include:

Social Symptoms

  • Does not respond to name consistently when called (in infancy)
  • Tendency to avoid eye contact (in infancy)
  • Difficulty imitating the actions of others (in toddlerhood)
  • Delays in imaginative play (in toddlerhood)
  • Preference for solitary play (in toddlerhood)
  • Limited back and forth play or interactions (in toddlerhood)
  • Difficulty seeing things from another person’s perspective
  • Failure to respond to social cues
  • Trouble understanding the perspective of others

Language Symptoms

  • Delayed speech language abilities/babbling (in infancy)
  • Delays in using gestures to communicate (in toddlerhood)
  • Difficulty understanding body language
  • Trouble creating sentences
  • Tendency to repeat words or phrases

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Failure to seek comfort when upset (in toddlerhood)
  • Frequent emotional outbursts or physical aggression

[Is My Child on the Autism Spectrum? Take This Test To Find Out]

Common repetitive behaviors include:

  • Rocking
  • Twirling
  • Arranging objects in a particular order
  • Wiggling fingers
  • Flapping hands
  • Atypically intense or unusual interests

Symptoms may look different in girls and boys – and that disparity may delay diagnosis for some girls with the condition. Girls are typically diagnosed later than boys with conditions previously known as pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and Asperger’s syndrome – both forms of ASD that are now classified as “high-functioning autism” in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders1. Additionally, the symptoms that lead to a diagnosis vary by gender. Young girls more commonly have trouble with social cues, while boys are more likely to exhibit repetitive behavior like hand flapping. In older children, ages 10-15, boys have more social issues than do girls. ASD symptoms in girls may be more nuanced and difficult to notice, leading to a delayed – or completely missed — diagnosis2.

Medical professionals agree that starting treatment as soon as possible is vital to enhance the child’s ability to communicate and develop coping skills with intensive Early Intervention programs.

1Mark Bertin. “Autism and ADHD: The Complete Playbook for Social Challenges.” ADDitude Magazine. (2015). Web. (

2Janice Rodden. “New Study: Autism – Like ADHD – Diagnosed Later in Girls.” ADDitude Magazine. (2015). Web. (

Symptoms at Home

Symptoms of ASD vary greatly from person to person based on the severity of the condition. To determine whether your child may be showing signs of ASD, look for the following symptoms at home:

[Additional Reading: Autism vs. ADHD: A Parent’s Guide to Tricky Diagnoses ]

  • When you talk to your child, he doesn’t listen, or even act like he can hear you.
  • If you point at the family dog, Fluffy, across the room, your child doesn’t turn to look at him.
  • Your child doesn’t like to play house, or imagine putting a doll to bed.
  • When your child wants you to retrieve a toy that is out of reach, your child does not point at the toy.
  • If you make funny faces at your child, he doesn’t laugh or react.
  • Your child doesn’t look you in the eye when you are getting her ready to go out.
  • You’ve noticed that your child rocks, wiggles his fingers, or flaps his hands over and over.
  • Your child has atypically intense, or unusual interests – like a fascination with baseball or a particular kind of animal.

Symptoms at School

Children with ASD may struggle at school because they have trouble with language or understanding social cues. The following signs may suggest that SPD is affecting learning:

  • The teacher mentions that your child has trouble differentiating between the teacher’s praise and her discipline.
  • Your child has trouble creating sentences longer than five words for essays, and often repeats the same word or phrase.
  • When the teacher gives instructions, your child echoes them back to him.
  • Your child doesn’t understand that if a child is frowning with his arms crossed, it means he doesn’t want to share.
  • When playing sorting games, your child has trouble picking out objects that are all the same shape or color.
  • On the playground, your child would rather sit by himself and read than engage or play with other children.
  • At the beginning of each school year, your child has a lot of difficulty getting back in the routine.
  • After summer break, your child loses skills he had the previous year.

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Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children: Next Steps