What is Autism? Part 1: Why Worry?

  • Intro to Series and Vocab
  • What is Autism and Why Does it Matter to Me? Part 1
  • What is Autism and Why Does it Matter to Me? Part 2
  • Tricks of the Trade – Tools for calming and teaching your autistic or special needs child
  • Choosing an Educational Option for Your Special Needs Child
  • Individualized Education Plans: A Step-by-Step Guide to Developing a Plan to Educate your Special Needs Child or Student

Welcome to my series on Autism! This post is the first of two designed to break down for you the common symptoms of autism, how often autism occurs, and why it is important to be aware of the possibility that your child has autism. Many parents shy away from “labeling” their child as autistic, so let’s begin with the reasons why you should honestly evaluate your child for autism.

Why Worry?                  

Why should you evaluate your child to determine if they have autism? Many parents, especially in the homeschool community, prefer a wait-and-see approach to possible disorders that their child might have. Parents don’t want their child to feel as if they are “labeled” or categorized and restricted based on a diagnosis. Some parents recognize that children develop at different rates and do not wish to push their child to conform to a timeline, developmentally or academically. These are valid ideas, especially as they acknowledge that children don’t all develop on a strict timeline. However, if they discourage a parent from honestly evaluating their child’s development, they may be harmful to the child in the long run. Diagnosis of autism has so many benefits, but two primary benefits stick out.

Early Intervention = Fewer Symptoms in the Long Run

            As we have improved in diagnosing children with autism at younger ages, it has come to be known that the earlier a child is diagnosed and interventions are begun, the better their long-term chance for operating as a neuro-typical child and adult. In other words, if your child has not begun to speak or has limited vocabulary at the age of 3, they are much more likely to develop fluent speech if you begin interventions then than if you wait until they are five. At the very least, they will develop it sooner! Children with social difficulties are much more likely to learn empathy and learn to interact normally in social situations if they begin interventions as a two or three year old than if they go on as usual until they are seven. I won’t go into all the technical jargon here, but you are welcome to contact me if you would like to see studies on the importance of early intervention. A search of google scholar should also yield many studies which show the same thing.

Understand your Child

            Possibly the greatest benefit to diagnosing a child with autism is that you can learn to understand your child. Although stereotypes are rarely effective, there are many elements common to individuals with autism in the way they think, relate to others, and react to their environment. When you understand these common elements and begin to understand what is behind some of your child’s behavior, a whole new world of relating and teaching can open to your family. You can learn to adapt your behavior, home, and parenting to your child’s disability, rather than forcing them to fit into a neuro-typical box. You may feel that your parenting is gracious and gentle enough that you are not forcing them into a box, but why limit yourself to only understanding your child through the lens of how you see the world? Recognizing that your child has autism is the first step to understanding how they see the world and learning to walk with them in it.

Think about it: If your child needed physical therapy to learn how to walk, would you ignore it and let them develop at their own pace?

We would never ignore physical disabilities in the same way that many have tried to ignore mental disabilities. Seeking a diagnosis for your child doesn’t mean you are trying to label or limit them, it means you are looking for the best way to help them reach their potential. Understanding them is the first step to unlocking that process.

            If you are a teacher, rather than a parent, the same principles apply. Your ability to teach a child is limited by how well you understand what that child needs in order to grow academically. If you want to be an effective teacher, recognize when your students may not be neuro-typical and seek to understand them to a greater degree.

Should you be concerned about your child?

So what about you and your child? Should you be looking for further evaluation? This is a list compiled by Autism Speaks which I feel does a great job of breaking down the symptoms of autism. My explanations are in italics. Please remember that ANY of these symptoms are cause for further evaluation; your child need not show all symptoms. It can’t hurt your child to evaluate them; it can be detrimental to delay evaluation until you’re sure they need it.

“Possible signs of autism in babies and toddlers:

  • By 6 months, no social smiles or other warm, joyful expressions directed at people
  • By 6 months, limited or no eye contact
  • By 9 months, no sharing of vocal sounds, smiles or other nonverbal communication
  • By 12 months, no babbling
  • By 12 months, no use of gestures to communicate (e.g. pointing, reaching, waving etc.)
  • By 12 months, no response to name when called
  • By 16 months, no words
  • By 24 months, no meaningful, two-word phrases
  • Any loss of any previously acquired speech, babbling or social skillsWe really aren’t able at this time to diagnose autism in children under the age of two because of the social and communicative nature of the disorder, but if you see signs of autism in babies and toddlers you can be prepared to have them evaluated formally soon after they turn two. You also will be able to implement some of the resources and tools I’ll discuss in a later post at home as soon as you notice a developmental delay, no diagnosis necessary!

Possible signs of autism at any age:

  • Avoids eye contact
  • Prefers to be alone
  • Struggles with understanding other people’s feelings May not recognize that others feel differently than they do about something or if they do that their feelings are valid.
  • Remains nonverbal or has delayed language development May not start conversations or may have difficulty maintaining a conversation and following the social norms of conversing with others.
  • Repeats words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Gets upset by minor changes in routine or surroundings May react violently to doing new things.
  • Has highly restricted interests They like to talk, read, watch movies about a limited number of things or they have only certain toys or types of toys with which they like to play.
  • Performs repetitive behaviors such as flapping, rocking or spinning May be something as simple as tapping the floor or swaying back and forth.
  • Has unusual and often intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors May reject foods based on their texture and appearance, may complain of noises being too loud or lights too bright.”

(Autism Speaks, 2012).

I would add to this list that symptoms parents most often notice aside from these are:

  • Behavior problems
  • Tantrums
  • Difficulty in school
  • Lack of back-and-forth or imaginative play
  • Lack of inhibition – no sense of what is acceptable to say to someone (For instance, may remark to someone that they are fat).
  • Lack of inhibition – may be inappropriately friendly with strangers.


The next post will dig much deeper into the prevalence of autism and what autism really is. This list is just to get you thinking about common symptoms of autism so that you can more easily recognize them in your child or student. If you have questions about what you read today, please feel free to comment or contact me privately. My passion is coming alongside families and helping them understand their children and unlock their potential, so I am more than glad to answer your questions and share my opinions or ideas.


“Learn the signs of autism.” Autism Speaks, 24 July 2012, http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/from-first-concern-to-action/learn-signs.


One Comment

  1. I am so intrigued by the whole autism subject, how it affects the whole family, and how each child on the spectrum can be helped to reach their full potential. Thanks for posting!


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