Characteristics of Autism in Toddlers

Explore the characteristics of autism in toddlers, from speech development to sensory sensitivities.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 5, 2024
7 min read
min read

Recognizing Autism in Toddlers

Recognizing the characteristics of autism in toddlers is critical in understanding this developmental disorder and in taking appropriate measures for support and intervention. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can present in various ways, with signs typically becoming more apparent when children reach preschool or school age.

Early Signs of Autism

Many children show symptoms of ASD by 12 months to 18 months of age or earlier, with the behavioral signs often appearing early in development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in every 54 children in the U.S. has been identified as having ASD, with the condition being four times more common among boys than among girls [2].

Children on the autism spectrum usually show delays in spoken language or differences in how they interact with peers. They may have difficulty developing language skills, understanding what others say to them, and communicating nonverbally through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. However, subtler differences in the development of gestures, pretend play, and social language often go unnoticed by families and doctors.

A key developmental difference between children on the autism spectrum and children without ASD is a delay in or lack of joint attention. Joint attention is a building block for later social and communication skills, and most children with ASD exhibit these delays.

Importance of Early Diagnosis

Early diagnosis of autism is crucial as it allows for intervention during the critical development period in a child's life. While certain signs of autism may not be entirely obvious until preschool or school age, any concerns about a child's development should prompt consultation with a doctor [1].

Teaching children with ASD to improve their communication skills is essential and should begin early during the preschool years. Intervention should be tailored to the child's age and interests, addressing both behavior and communication skills with regular reinforcement of positive actions [2].

Parents and caregivers are recommended to be observant of their child's development and to seek professional help if they notice any developmental delays or loss of skills at any age. Early diagnosis and intervention can make a significant difference in the life of a child with autism and their family.

Autism and Speech Development

Understanding the nuances of speech development in toddlers with autism is crucial when seeking to understand the broader characteristics of autism in toddlers. This section will compare speech delay and autism and discuss the impact of autism on communication skills.

Autism vs. Speech Delay

While a speech delay in toddlers might raise concerns about possible autism, it's vital to note that a speech delay alone does not mean a child has autism [4]. Speech and language delays are common among young children and can be caused by factors such as hearing impairments, developmental issues, or environmental factors. These delays often follow similar developmental patterns as their peers but at a slower rate.

On the other hand, children with autism may experience additional challenges related to communication, socialization, and behavior. One key distinguishing characteristic between speech delay and autism lies in how children speak and what they say. For instance, a child with autism might have difficulty with reciprocal conversation or show limited interest in sharing experiences, emotions, or interests.

Impact of Autism on Communication Skills

Autism can significantly impact a child's communication skills. Some children with autism might develop speech and language skills at a typical pace initially but then regress. Others might develop language skills at a slower rate or not at all. Nonverbal communication, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures, can also be affected.

Some communication-related challenges, such as difficulty with social interaction, can be signs of autism. If these symptoms are observed in a child, it's best to consult a professional for a proper diagnosis.

Speech therapists play a key role in the treatment of communication-related challenges in children with autism. They can help improve verbal and nonverbal communication, social pragmatic skills, body language interpretation, prosody, grammar, social skills, and conversational skills [4].

In conclusion, while speech delays can be part of the broader autism spectrum, they are not definitive signs of autism. Autism presents with additional distinguishing characteristics beyond speech delays, including specific patterns in speech and language development, as well as challenges in social interaction and nonverbal communication. Understanding these differences can help in early detection and intervention, improving the overall developmental outlook for children with autism.

Social Interaction Challenges in Autistic Toddlers

One of the key characteristics of autism in toddlers is the challenges they face in social interaction. Here, we will delve into these challenges, specifically focusing on difficulty with social cues and the impact on play and interaction.

Difficulty with Social Cues

Toddlers on the autism spectrum may experience difficulties in interpreting other people's behaviors and knowing how to respond appropriately. They may struggle to understand facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, which are critical components of non-verbal communication.

This difficulty in comprehending social cues can lead these toddlers to respond in ways that may seem out of context or inappropriate to the situation. For example, they might not react or respond when someone is calling their name, or they might not maintain eye contact during interactions.

Moreover, this challenge with social cues can also result in a feeling of anxiety or isolation for toddlers on the autism spectrum. This feeling can further impede their willingness or motivation to interact with others, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.

Impact on Play and Interaction

The social communication difficulties experienced by toddlers with autism can also impact their play skills and interaction with others. Unlike their neurotypical peers, autistic toddlers may not engage in certain types of play or might play differently. This could include repetitive play behaviors, or lack of imaginative or pretend play.

These differences in play can make it more challenging for autistic toddlers to form connections with their peers. They might have difficulty managing conflicts, solving problems, and feeling a sense of belonging in social situations. Likewise, they may show limited motivation to interact with others, although this varies widely among individuals.

The challenges in social interaction that are characteristic of autism highlight the importance of early intervention and appropriate support. By recognizing these difficulties early and seeking professional help, parents and caregivers can better equip their toddlers with the skills and strategies they need to navigate social situations.

Autism and Sensory Sensitivities

One of the significant characteristics of autism in toddlers is sensory sensitivities. This aspect can be expressed as hyper-sensitivities (being over-responsive) or hypo-sensitivities (being under-responsive) to a wide array of stimuli, ranging from sights and sounds to smells and tastes. Sensory issues often go hand-in-hand with autism, and each individual with autism is unique, not only in terms of their core symptoms but also their response to various stimuli.

Understanding Sensory Overload

Research indicates that the prevalence of sensory symptoms among children and adults with autism is between 69% and 93%, leading to sensory overload being added as a diagnostic criterion of autism spectrum disorder. Sensory overload can occur when an individual is exposed to a high volume or intensity of sensory stimuli, leading to feelings of discomfort and distress.

Among children with autism, sensory symptoms are broken down into hyper-responsiveness or hypo-responsiveness. These sensitivity differences are in relation to the five core senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell), as well as the proprioceptive and vestibular senses. These senses affect an individual's motor skills, balance, and body awareness [6].

Researchers found that sensory sensitivities are an underlying feature of autism, with approximately 85% of the overlap between sensory sensitivities and autism being explained by genetic variables. This suggests that sensory sensitivities may run in families, with parents and siblings of individuals with autism often sharing milder versions of these sensitivities.

Coping with Sensory Sensitivities

Understanding a child's unique sensitivities is crucial in assisting them in avoiding sensory overload. Accommodating for hypersensitivities and trying various treatment options can be beneficial. One such approach is the development of a tailored sensory diet by a therapist. A sensory diet involves therapeutic activities designed to help an individual regulate their sensory input, thereby helping them to feel more comfortable and focused in their environment.

In conclusion, sensory sensitivities in autism can be a challenge for both the individual and their family. However, through understanding and accommodation, these sensitivities can be managed effectively. This is an integral part of ensuring the wellbeing and development of individuals with autism.

Role of Professional Support in Autism

Addressing the characteristics of autism in toddlers requires a multi-faceted approach, with professional support playing a critical role. From early diagnosis to targeted therapy, professionals can provide essential assistance in helping toddlers with autism navigate their unique challenges.

How Professionals Can Help

Professionals such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, and behavioral therapists can provide targeted support to children with autism, focusing on areas such as communication skills, social interactions, and overall development.

In particular, speech therapists play a key role in the treatment of communication-related challenges in children with autism. They can help improve verbal and nonverbal communication, social pragmatic skills, body language interpretation, prosody, grammar, social skills, and conversational skills.

Teaching children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to improve their communication skills is essential and should begin early during the preschool years, tailored to the child's age and interests, addressing both behavior and communication skills with regular reinforcement of positive actions [2].

Importance of Early Intervention

Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial in helping children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop and reach their full potential. Notably, early intervention services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral therapy, can help children with autism improve their communication skills, social interactions, and overall development.

Parents are encouraged to talk with their pediatricians if they have concerns about how their child plays, learns, speaks, acts, or moves, as early detection and intervention can significantly impact a child's development.

Early intervention programs, including speech therapy, can help children with autism develop their communication skills and improve their overall quality of life. It is paramount to understand that early intervention is crucial for children with autism, as it can lead to better outcomes in terms of communication, social skills, and overall development.

In summary, the role of professional support in addressing the characteristics of autism in toddlers cannot be overstated. Prompt diagnosis and intervention, coupled with comprehensive support from professionals, can significantly enhance the developmental trajectory of a toddler with autism.








steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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