Signs Of Autism: Early Diagnosis in Toddlers (Two Year Olds)

Signs of autism in toddlers and two year olds

How Early Can Autism Be Diagnosed?

While ASD is typically diagnosed in 3 years olds or 4 years olds, there are usually signs in the first couple years of life that can help detect ASD. Identifying autism spectrum disability (ASD) as early as possible has a direct correlation to achieving positive outcomes. Studies show intensive early intervention can have a significant impact on reversing co-occurring deficits associated with autism, particularly when parents play a central role.

What Are Early Signs Of Autism?

Are you concerned about your toddler's overall development? Do you think your child has difficulties with their social interactions, play, communication and behavior skills in typical everyday interactions?

Below are some early warning signs and traits that a toddler with autism might exhibit.

1. Differences in language and communication:

Uses and understands fewer words and gestures

  • Refers physical communication (pulling/guiding) over using words/phrases
  • Does not babble (‘mamama’ ‘baba’) or use single words or words that sound close to the intended word
  • Loses speaking skills they’ve already developed
  • Has difficulty responding to their name or answering questions (oftentimes, they repeat the question)

Talks in a voice with a different tone

  • Has vocalizations like whining, fussing, or throaty sounds instead of babbling
  • Doesn’t vary voice in pitch, tone, or volume when speaking
  • Repeats what others are saying (echolalia) instead of saying their own phrases.

2. Differences in play/social communication:

Plays with peers in an unfamiliar manner

  • Prefers to lead their own play and might play alongside peers rather than engaging directly with them
  • May not show and share toys/objects for play as expected or engage in back and forth play (rolling a ball to each other)
  • Usually prefers functional play over imaginative/pretend play

Has difficulties with typical non-verbal exchanges

  • Fails to recognize or use the typical responses to non-verbal communication, including:
    • Pointing to things they want
    • Waving hello or goodbye when waved at by caregiver
    • Reaching out to caregiver to be held or hugged
    • Using gestures not words to express their needs/wants

3. Differences in behavior and sensory needs:

Exhibits strong focus on interests

  • Demonstrates special interests in certain toys or objects that they frequently choose to play with, and explore them for extended periods of time
  • Lack interest in other toys and experience phases of focus on different objects.

Displays emotional Dysregulation

  • Expresses emotions in more physical ways (flapping hands, squeezing hands together, pacing).
  • May cry or throw tantrums for extended periods of time during transitions or changes in routine (e.g., going from home to daycare).

Exhibits different way of using toys

  • Finds unfamiliar ways to play and use objects (noticing small details, lining up toys with no apparent pattern) and repetitive (e.g., child completes the same puzzle repeatedly in the same way)

Does A Speech Delay Mean Autism?

A speech delay does not always mean a toddler has autism. There are key differences between speech delays caused by autism and other speech-language disabilities. A speech delay can be a sign of autism, but it's not the only thing that can cause a communication delay.

  • “It is important to understand that each child develops at their own pace so you shouldn’t rush into looking for a diagnosis. That being said, as a parent, you observe your child carefully and use parental instinct. If you have concerns or if you see your child having difficulty communicating don't wait. It is best to get help early for young children so when in doubt I always recommend getting your child assessed by a speech-language pathologist (or SLP). An assessment with an SLP can identify if the child is just late in development or if there are other factors involved.”

Is Early Intervention Effective For Autism?

Early autism detection leads to early intervention. Early intervention has been shown to provide children with the opportunity to grow their communication and social skills. It can also help children begin to learn how to regulate their emotions and sensory experiences in this world so they can learn and play to their fullest potential.

  • "When we understand how a child's mind works, we have the opportunity to reduce shame and feelings of inadequacy. We can assist them in recognizing their strengths and being more effective in interpersonal interactions. It is an opportunity to highlight and appreciate the differences that make each child unique and help them to discover their own potential.”

    - Dr. Cari Whitlock, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Healthy Young Minds, on the importance of understanding and acceptance.

Is Early Intervention Effective For Speech And Language?

Children who have difficulty expressing themselves and understanding others may benefit greatly from early intervention. Many times, these children have a higher probability for academic or social difficulties which can lead to emotional dysregulation in their daily lives. Early intervention can have long-term positive effects on children’s overall well-being.

  • “Toddlers who have autism will have a delay in the development of some of their skills, but not in other skills. The skills that are affected vary depending on the child as each one develops differently.”

    - Julie Norman, Lead Speech-Language Pathologist at HYM

If you’ve noticed any of the above signs or traits of autism, please talk with your pediatrician and request a screening.

If you or someone you know are currently involved in a serious crisis, please call 911 to connect with local emergency services that can help to resolve the situation. For other situations refer to our Mental Health Crisis Resources.

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