Autism is a disorder, not a disease, so it isn’t entirely accurate to refer to autism “symptoms.” Instead, there are certain signs and behavioral patterns that indicate autism. Most autism symptoms develop before the child is three years old, although signs may be present as early as one year of age. Autism symptoms cover a wide range of communication, performance, and behavioral deficits.
Communication and Verbal Skills. Communication and verbal skills develop gradually in a child. Babies begin to develop verbal skills by cooing and babbling, which gradually evolves into words and sentences. Communication also includes facial expressions and pointing. Eye contact, social smiling, and touch are all methods of communication.
Autism impairs the development of communication and verbal skills. Autism should be considered if any of the following symptoms occur:
apparent hearing problems
cannot explain needs
does not respond to name
does not smile
loss of communication and verbal skills at any age
no eye contact
repetitious use of words out of context (echolalia)
sixteen months of age with no word use
doesn’t point or gesture by one year of age
doesn’t coo or babble by one year of age
doesn’t speak in two word sentences by two years of age.
Coupled with a tendency to withdraw from social interaction, an autistic child’s impaired communication and verbal skills affects behavior on a number of levels. The child may not follow directions, or may act as if he or she didn’t hear them. Verbal skills are an important part of play development. Autistic children have difficulty playing with others, and often seem unaware of toys.
Communication and verbal deficits may explain why autistic children seem to lack a sense of humor. The ability to respond to humor varies with each child. Some parents insist their child does have a sense of humor, but that the child’s perception of humor differs significantly from the norm.
Seizures. Seizures are possible autism symptoms. Between twenty to thirty percent of autistic children develop seizures during adolescence
Behavioral Deficits. Autism symptoms include a number of behavioral deficits. Often the child appears to be in his or her own world, oblivious to people and things. Behavioral deficits may include an inability to cope with change: alter a routine and the child may respond with violent tantrums. Other behavioral deficits include either heightened activity, or very little activity. While some children may run for hours, others simply sit quietly, apparently doing nothing.
Self-stimulation is common for autistic children, usually taking the form of repetitive actions. This may include echolalia, where the child repeats words or phrases without any context. Physical self-stimulation can include flapping arms, rocking, or head banging. In severe cases of head banging, the child may have to wear a helmet for protection.
Sensory Difficulties. Autistic children often experience sensory integration deficits. The child may perceive a gentle touch as painful, possibly explaining why autistic infants resist being held or cuddled. Noises, smells, and lights may overwhelm the child, causing distress. Conversely, some children will be fascinated by light patterns, music, or smells, ignoring everything else.
Toe-walking behavior is also common. The child walks only on tiptoes when possible. This may also be related to autistic sensory problems. The child may be trying to minimize contact with the floor.
Intellectual Performance. Intellectual performance varies with each child. Some are of average intelligence, but as many as eighty percent of autistic children have some degree of learning difficulties, and special education may be required. Children with Asperger’s syndrome may display above average intellectual performance.
A common autism myth centers around “savant” behavior, where an autistic child displays exceptional performance in certain areas. The classic example is Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, an autistic savant who can calculate complicated mathematical problems in his head with great speed and accuracy. Popular culture presents savant performance as if it were common to autistic children, and as if their autism were the price they pay for exceptional performance in specialized areas.
In fact, very few cases of child autism display any savant capabilities. The popular myth may have grown out of isolated incidents, and the fact that many autistic children focus on one area of interest to the exclusion of other topics.