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Autism in Kids: 3 Common Behaviors, How It's Diagnosed, and Services That Can Help

Brian Clista, MDPatricia Pinto-Garcia, MD, MPH
Published on November 1, 2021

Key takeaways: 

  • About 1 in 44 children in the U.S. have autism.

  • Children with autism have challenges with social interactions and communication.

  • There are many services that can help children with autism build their communication and social skills.

02:08

Did you know that 1 in 44 children in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum? Each person with autism has their own individual strengths and challenges when it comes to communication, social interaction, and cognitive development. Intervention services allow children with autism to maximize their strengths and develop coping strategies. The earlier the intervention is started, the better kids do — so it’s important to recognize the behaviors and make the diagnosis early. Read on to learn more about autism behaviors, diagnosis, and resources to support children with autism.

Common behaviors in children with autism

In general, children with autism develop differently when it comes to communication and social interactions. They also tend to display repetitive or restricted behaviors. Autism exists on a spectrum, so not every child will have the same patterns of communication and behavior. But children with autism often display some common behaviors in these three general categories. 

1. Trouble with communication

Babies begin communicating by cooing, babbling, and pointing. Children who have autism may have trouble communicating. Some children with autism don’t:

  • Babble as infants

  • Point to things

  • Talk (or they may start talking later than other children)

  • Engage in pretend play

2. Difficulty with social interactions

Babies want to connect with their parents. Early on, they do this by making eye contact. Then, they learn to smile and laugh. Babies like to get your attention and show you what their interests are. Children with autism might not do these things. Instead, they might:

  • Avoid eye contact

  • Not respond when someone calls their name

  • Not look at things people point to

  • Have more interest in objects than other people

3. Repetitive or restricted behaviors

Babies learn to shift their attention between people and objects. They can adjust to small changes in their routines. Children who have autism may feel more comfortable repeating routines and maintaining specific interests. You may notice that your child has:

  • Intense interest in only a few activities or objects 

  • Sensitivity to certain stimuli, like sounds or textures   

  • Difficulty when routines change, becoming very upset or inconsolable 

  • Unusual movements, like flapping their hands or spinning in circles

Autism behaviors appear early

Children show behaviors of autism in many ways. Some children with autism will show behaviors before they are 1 year old. And others might not show any behaviors until they’re close to 2 or 3 years old. Some people only have mild difficulties with communication and socialization and don’t realize they’re on the spectrum until they’re much older. 

If you have questions about your child’s development, there are tools that can help, such as:

  • Autism navigator: This tool has a video library of infants and toddlers who are on the autism spectrum. It also has videos of similarly aged children with neurotypical development (children who have developed without signs of autism).

  • Learn the Signs, Act Early”: This is from the CDC, and it provides a milestone checklist — including photos and videos — that helps you track your child’s development.

These tools can help you figure out if your child is showing behaviors of autism. If you notice anything, talk to your child’s healthcare provider about next steps. 

How autism is diagnosed

There’s no specific test to diagnose autism. Your child’s healthcare provider should screen your child for autism during their checkups at 18 months and 24 months. Most healthcare providers use the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT). The M-CHAT is a validated set of questions that can tell if your child shows behaviors seen with autism. 

If your child’s screening shows behaviors of autism, your healthcare provider will ask you to see a specialist — like a developmental pediatrician or child psychologist — for a complete evaluation. This will include an interview with you and your child, as well as observation of their play and interactions. The specialist can then give a diagnosis and get your family started with services that are specific to autism. 

In June 2021, the FDA approved a new tool to help diagnose autism — the Cognoa ASD Diagnosis Aid. This is a software system that allows families and healthcare providers to upload information and videos through a mobile app. Specialists then view the video information via a portal. The Cognoa software analyzes all the data to see if a child has behaviors seen with autism. This system can be helpful in cases where specialists aren’t available. This way, your child doesn’t have to wait to be evaluated and can start services sooner.

Why we see more autism now than in the past

Many people ask why there are more children diagnosed with autism now than in the past. The answer isn’t clear. The fact that people are more aware of autism plays a role. Also, healthcare providers are now screening every child for autism. This means that most children on the spectrum will receive a diagnosis and services.

Although it was a concern in the past, research has shown that vaccines do not cause autism. So vaccines do not play a role in autism diagnoses.

Ways to support a child who has autism

There are many dedicated and specialized healthcare professionals who work with people who have autism. Everyone with autism is different, and these providers tailor services based on your child’s strengths, challenges, and age. Many of these specialists offer services in your home, where your child is more comfortable. Your child may also be able to receive services in school as they get older. The goal is to help your child thrive and be healthy. 

Autism-specific services

Services available for children with autism include:

  • Behavioral therapy: Specialists most often use applied behavior analysis (ABA) to help with social interaction. 

  • Developmental therapy: This form of therapy uses play therapy to teach about social interaction and communication. A common approach is Floortime, or the Developmental, Individual Differences, and Relationship-Based Model. 

  • Physical therapy: Children with autism may have low muscle tone or difficulty with coordination. Physical therapists can help address these issues.

  • Speech therapy: Speech therapists can help your child communicate verbally or with assistive devices like the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).

  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapists help promote your child’s independence skills, including many activities of daily living.

  • Social skills training: Specialists help children recognize the social cues of others. Parents also learn how to emphasize social skill development in their child’s everyday life.

There is evidence that these services help children with autism improve their communication and social skills. 

Despite some claims, right now, there’s no evidence that a gluten-free diet, chelation therapy, or vitamins help children with autism improve their skills. 

Affirmation and community

The most important thing you can do is to affirm and support your child. Children with autism may have challenges with communication and social interactions. But they can also have unique strengths and skills. Scientists are learning more about neurodiversity (differences in behavior and brain function) and how to help neurodivergent children communicate and use their talents.

Consider joining a local or state community group so you can meet other families and children with autism. Building a community is important for your entire family. This can be a great way to learn about programs, schools, and specialists. It’s also a great way to make new friends and celebrate your child’s neurodiversity. 

The bottom line

Children with autism often have challenges with communication and social interaction, as well as repetitive or restrictive behaviors. Autism is very common, so healthcare providers screen all children for autism behaviors during checkups at 18 months and 24 months. There are many ways to help a child with autism thrive — including using specialized services and building a social community.

View All References (6)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Early intervention and education for autism spectrum disorder - a closer look.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Data & statistics on autism spectrum disorder.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). “Learn the Signs. Act Early”.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Treatment and intervention services for autism spectrum disorder.

Kuo, D. Z., et al. (2020). Identification, evaluation, and management of children with autism spectrum disorder. Pediatrics.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2021). FDA authorizes marketing of diagnostic aid for autism spectrum disorder.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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