Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

One of the most common questions I receive from parents at my private practice is, “do you think he/she has Autism Spectrum Disorder?”

It’s very important for parents, caregivers and teachers to know the signs and symptoms of children who are, in fact, diagnosed as being on the spectrum. As with any disorder, knowing symptoms can assist the people in the child’s life begin to help him/her the best way possible. In this blog, I will address the common signs or symptoms of an individual that may be diagnosed with an Autism. 

What is Autism? 

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction and the presence of restricted, repetitive behaviors.

Social communication deficits include impairments in aspects of joint attention (looking and focusing on multiple things or activities) and social reciprocity (give and take in conversations), as well as challenges in the use of verbal and nonverbal communicative behaviors for social interaction. 

“At its core, communication is a social process; therefore, the social communication issues experienced by individuals with ASD also impact their communication partners.” 

ASHA, 2012

Family members, friends, teachers, speech pathologists, and other service providers who interact with someone with ASD are faced with the challenge of learning to respond to subtle attempts for communication, interpreting the functions of problem behavior, and modifying the environment to foster active, social engagement (ASHA,2012). Peers often times feel challenged when communicating with someone who has been diagnosed with ASD, which can lead to even more issues with social interactions and a negative learning experience. 

4 Main Areas Affected

Individuals who are diagnosed with ASD may have difficulties with four main areas, which will be discussed in greater lengths. These four main areas also have sub-areas that will be briefly targeted in this blog. It is important to remember that not every individual will exhibit difficulties in all areas – they may only have issues in one. Everyone is different!

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1. Social Communication

This means being able to engage and fully participate in all facets of a conversation.

Joint Attention

  1. Difficulty adjusting to new environments.
  2. Cannot take other perspectives.
  3. Focused on one thing at a time.
  4. Cannot monitor their own emotional state.

Social Reciprocity

  1. Difficulty getting another persons’ attention.
  2. Cannot engage in turn-taking during conversational tasks.
  3. Does not respond appropriately when asked questions.

Social Cognition

Social cognition refers to the mental processes involved in perceiving, attending to, remembering, thinking about, and making sense of the people in our social world (Moskowitz, 2005).

  1. Managing emotions are challenging.
  2. Difficulty relating to same-aged-peers.

2. Language and Related Cognitive Skills

This area is one of the largest indicators that a child may be diagnosed with ASD. Therefore, it will be discussed in the most detail as possible.

Impaired acquisition of words, word combinations and sentence structure

  1. Child may lose words that are previously acquired (starts at age 3).
  2. First words are nouns – usually objects they see in their normal environments. Words that are proper nouns (names) and actions (verbs) are delayed.

Use and understanding of verbal and nonverbal communication

  1. Gestures, body language and facial expressions are delayed throughout the first year of life and continue to be an area of weakness or atypical throughout development.
  2. Immediate echolalia is observed – this is where a child just repeats whatever you say, immediately after you say it. They can also have delayed echolalia, where they repeat information hours, days or weeks after they hear it.
  3. Children will not make eye contact or will only do so for a brief period of time.

Conversational deficits

  1. Speech sounds may be robotic and won’t flow together when the child starts to communicate.
  2. Not understanding the social norms of communication, such as, proximity to another speaker, vocal volume, and timing (e.g., may talk over another person).
  3. Problems understanding figurative language (e.g., idioms) and humor.

Executive Functioning and Play

  1. Children may lack or have limited flexibility – need everything to be structured and predictable.
  2. Lack of inhibition (e.g., runs away from caregivers towards the street).
  3. Poor planning and organization.
  4. Poor problem solving.
  5. Does not use objects appropriately during play.
  6. Repetitive, inflexible play (e.g., child will play the same game or with the same object day after day).

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3. Behavior and Emotional Regulation

Problems with behavior and emotional regulation include (ASHA, 2012):

  1. Issues dealing with changes in routine and/or changing from one activity to the next. 
  2. Problems generalizing learned skills – can’t take what they learn in school and do the same thing at home.
  3. Using objects in unusual ways and uncommon attachments to objects.
  4. Crying, becoming angry, or laughing for no known reason or at inappropriate times.
  5. Using early-developing for self-regulation (e.g., chewing on clothing, rocking, hand flapping, vocal play).
  6. Using unconventional behavioral strategies and emotional expressions (e.g., aggression, tantrums, bolting from situations). 
  7. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (e.g., immediate echolalia).
  8. Problems with self-management.

4. Sensory and Feeding

Deficits in sensory and feeding may lead to the following behaviors:

  1. Over-responsiveness, under-responsiveness, or mixed responsiveness patterns to environmental sounds, light, visual clutter, and social stimuli (e.g., social touch, proximity of others, voices).
  2. Preference to play or be by oneself.
  3. Either loving or rejecting food due to their consistency.
  4. Eating small variety of food.

REMEMBER. Not every individual will display all of these characteristics. They may have a little from the sensory and feeding category, a bunch from cognition and none from the other categories. 

PLEASE NOTE. Even if your child is diagnosed with ASD, they can grow up to have the same things as every other child – be successful, have a job and have a family. 

It is important to get your child properly diagnosed by a medical professional as early as possible to start intervention as soon as possible!


Stacie Bennett, Speech-Language Pathologist, speech therapy

Stacie Bennett has been practicing as a Speech-Language Pathologist for the past ten years. Currently, she works full-time at a vocational high school in New Jersey and have her own private practice. Feel free to contact Stacie if you have any questions!

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