Autism: Signs and symptoms

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Signs and symptoms

The first signs and symptoms of autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD) can vary widely and appear at different times. Some people on the autism spectrum show signs within the first few months of life. Others don't show signs until much later.

Up to 12 months of age, signs of autism can include:

  • little or no babbling
  • little or no eye contact
  • showing more interest in objects than people
  • appearing not to hear when spoken to directly
  • playing with toys in an unusual or limited manner
  • repetitive movements with their fingers, hands, arms or head
  • starting to develop language skills but then stopping or losing those skills

Up to 2 years of age, signs may also include:

  • very specific area of interest
  • limited or no interest in other children
  • behavioural issues like self-injury or self-isolation
  • repeating words or phrases without appearing to understand them
  • difficulty with reciprocal social interactions (like playing peek-a-boo)
  • liking to have things a certain way, such as always eating the same food

Possible signs of autism at any age can include:

  • little eye contact
  • distinct reactions to:
    • lights
    • tastes
    • smells
    • sounds
    • colours
    • textures
  • very specific interests
  • repeating words or phrases (echolalia)
  • repetitive behaviours, such as spinning
  • nonverbal communication or delayed language development
  • intense reactions to minor changes in routine or surroundings

Getting an assessment

Speak to your healthcare provider about getting an autism assessment if:

  • you have concerns
  • you notice any signs or symptoms
  • a close relative has been diagnosed with autism, such as a sibling

If the assessment is for someone else, you can help their health care provider understand your concerns by:

  • taking photographs
  • keeping logs or diaries
  • making video recordings

Your health care provider may refer you to a specialist for more tests and assessments. A specialist is the best person to provide a diagnosis.

Getting a diagnosis

There is no simple medical test for diagnosing autism.

To diagnose you with autism, a healthcare professional observes:

  • your cognitive abilities
  • how you communicate
  • how you relate to others
  • your overall development
  • how you regulate your behaviour and emotions
  • any behaviours related to your interests and activities

They use this information to determine the kind of support you need.

Often a team of healthcare professionals will work together to conduct a comprehensive assessment to decide if a diagnosis is appropriate. This team can include:

  • family physician
  • audiologists
  • pediatricians
  • psychiatrists
  • psychologists
  • nurse practitioners
  • occupational therapists
  • developmental pediatricians
  • speech and language pathologists

The assessment will also screen for other possible co-occurring conditions that may affect development.

Healthcare professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to evaluate and diagnose autism.

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