Autism SOS: Three Warning Signs of Autism in Toddlers
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Autism SOS: Three Warning Signs of Autism in Toddlers

First, the good news: Research shows that early intervention can be extremely effective in improving or reversing traits commonly associated with autism.

Now, the bad news: The younger children are, the more difficult it is to pick out autism warning signs in their behavior. Which is particularly bad when you understand that the earlier you start addressing developmental delays, the better off kids often are. 

But we know a lot more about autism than we used to. Including how to identify signals in young children. Interestingly, it’s often not so much what they do, as it is what they don’t do. Things like not talking, not smiling, or not making eye contact.

Autism is a complex condition with symptoms that vary from child to child and can range from mild to severe. To simplify this complexity, experts categorize the symptoms in 3 broad ways:

  1. Trouble relating to other people and the world around them
  2. Obsessive, repetitive, or nonflexible behavior
  3. Difficulty communicating, both verbally and nonverbally

Or to put it even more simply, SOS: 

            Social avoidance

            Obsession and repetition

            Speech delays

Let’s look at each individually. 

  1. The social component. Social skills aren’t just the ability to act politely or make conversation. For infants and toddlers, they’re one of the most important ways they learn to bond with the people that are taking care of them. They make eye contact with them. They seek out hugs and cuddles, and are comforted when they get them. They watch people, study them, mimic them. Kids with autism often don’t do that, and this makes it harder for them to learn by watching and imitating their parents or caregivers.
  2. Obsession and repetition. This one can be tricky, because all infants and toddlers repeat things in order to learn. They babble repetitively to learn language. They repeat actions to develop coordination. They play with the same toys or objects to get a better understanding of those things. But when it comes to autism, the repetition doesn’t quite work the same way. Many kids with autism rock back and forth or flap their hands as a way to calm themselves when something upsets them. The upsetting “something” could be a change in their routine, or uncomfortable sensory input, like a sound that’s too loud, or a texture that’s too rough. This kind of repetition is called “stimming.”  It’s not so much about learning as it is about calming, much in the same way that someone might chant a mantra to self-calm when meditating. Repetition could also come from obsession with some type of sensory input. For example, a child with autism might repeatedly touch or hold an object, or stare for a very long period of time at a pattern or something that moves, just because it’s pleasing to their sense of sight or touch.
  3. Speech delays. Difficulty communicating is very common with autism. In fact, the word “autism” comes from the Greek “autos” meaning “self” because people with autism often appear to be absorbed in a world of their own. They have trouble relating to other people, and that includes understanding how to communicate, both with words and with nonverbal expressions or gestures. Usually, before a child learns language they learn the basic idea of communication by pointing or reaching for things and getting some kind of response. At an early age, many children with autism lack the skills leading to the first steps of developing communication.

“SOS” is an appropriate acronym for the warning signs of autism, since early intervention should be sought as quickly as possible. Parents who notice things like social avoidance, obsessive or repetitive behavior, or speech delays shouldn’t take a “wait and see” approach. They should talk to their pediatrician about a developmental evaluation, and if necessary, get started with interventions like speech and occupational therapy.

The National Autism Association believes in the value of the acronym “SOS” and the power it can have to help parents and children. More information can be found at During Autism Awareness Month and beyond, you can help by spreading the word about SOS, including through social media using our hashtag #AutismSOS.

Author bio: Wendy Fournier is President, Founding Board Member of National Autism Society. Wendy’s youngest daughter was diagnosed with autism in 2002.  Wendy is committed to changing the perspective of autism from what was once considered a mysterious mental illness to a biologically definable and treatable medical disorder. She attends and speaks at conferences throughout the US and conducts wandering-safety training for caregivers, school administrators and first responders.  Wendy has been appointed to the RI State Commission to study the education of children with autism, and as a consumer reviewer for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program for Autism Research through the U.S. Department of Defense.  She has been interviewed by major media outlets including CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, People, and Redbook Magazine.