Signs of Autism: Is It Time To See a Doctor about Your Child?

According to the CDC, one out of every 68 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Might your child be affected, too? Indicators and screening tools can help you know whether your child should be seen by a professional.

Signs of Autism

There is no one-size-fits-all description of autism or autism spectrum disorders. However, there are three main categories in which many symptoms fall. These are:

  • Social difficulties

  • Communication challenges

  • Repetitive behaviors

Often, symptoms can be identified at a young age. If your little one doesn’t babble by age one, say any words by 16 months, smile in response to you or respond to his or her name, these are signs that suggest further evaluation is necessary. In older children, the indicators can include a lack of imaginative play, a rigid adherence to routine, an inability to make friends or carry on appropriate conversation and a fixation on a particular topic of interest. A loss of language or social skills at any age should always be evaluated.

Autism Speaks offers a detailed list of typical developmental milestones, beginning at three to four months, and an online quiz about the signs of autism.

Online Evaluation

The M-CHAT-R (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers-Revised) is a screening tool that can help you determine whether your child should be seen by a doctor. It is designed to be used with children who are between 16 and 30 months. Autism Speaks offers an online version of the assessment.

Taking the M-CHAT-R is just the first step in the diagnosis process. If the M-CHAT-R indicates red flags, it’s time to schedule an appointment to have your child professionally evaluated. The doctor will do further screenings to determine whether your child meets the diagnostic criteria for autism. The M-CHAT-R can be useful not only for detecting signs of autism, but also for helping identify children who have other developmental delays or disorders.

Although the M-CHAT-R is a useful tool, it’s not foolproof. Even if the screening doesn’t indicate that your child is at risk, if you still have concerns about your child’s development, go ahead and set up an appointment to have your child evaluated by a doctor.

Finding a Doctor

Every child should have well visits with a family doctor or pediatrician on a regular basis. At these appointments, doctors check whether children are meeting developmental milestones. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that physicians do a formal developmental screening at nine, 18 and 36 months and autism-specific screenings at 18 and 24 months.

If your child’s doctor notices signs of autism or the M-CHAT-R has raised red flags, it’s time to see a specialist for further diagnosis and testing. This could be a developmental pediatrician, psychiatrist, psychologist or neurologist. Dr. Fred Volkmar, author of A Practical Guide to Autism, recommends finding a doctor who has experience in treating patients with autism. The Autism Research Institute suggests asking for referrals from parents in an autism support group.

Early intervention departments are available in each state. These can be a good source for screening, information and therapy services. If developmental concerns are suspected, early intervention can help even before you receive a diagnosis. Sooner is better for children with autism spectrum disorders, as early intervention improves both outcome and quality of life.