Detecting the Early Warning Signs of Autism

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

It seems that there is more awareness than ever about autism these days.
When I go to the bookstore there are multiple shelves reserved for books written about this disorder.
There are more news articles, more research and more public discussions about autism than ever. This greater awareness may be due to the growing rates of children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
Some estimates report that one out of every one hundred and fifty children living in the United States may be diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder.

Yet with all this greater publicity and awareness, autism continues to be a most perplexing and mysterious neurological disorder.
I contend that autism is not an easy disorder to detect early on because the child may not show all the signs right away.
Add to this, every child on the autism spectrum is unique and may show vastly different symptoms than another child on the spectrum.
All we really have to diagnose autism is a list of possible behaviors which the child may or may not display at any one time.

My two sons could be a case study in this confusion.
My youngest son has autism.
My eldest son does not.
Yet early on my eldest son showed some of the early warning signs of an autism spectrum disorder.
He didn't like cuddling much and would sometimes
straighten like a
board when being picked up, was a very late talker (didn't say many words at all until his fourth birthday), and was obsessed with trains.
But when he was tested, we were told that my eldest son did not have autism.
So when my youngest son also showed delays in talking we were not as concerned and just thought that he was following in his brother's footsteps in being a late talker.

We were wrong.

There were distinct differences in my two boys with regard to their early development which I want to highlight here in hopes that it may help parents and caregivers to know what things to focus upon as far as early warning signs of autism.

  • My son who has autism didn't respond to his name when we called him but my son who does not have autism always turned to his name.

  • My son who has autism did not point to things to show us things in his environment. My son who does not have autism consistently pointed to things. I would say that this was one of the huge indicators that my youngest son had autism. Both of my boys lacked verbal language but my oldest made up for it with pointing and gestures.

  • My son who has autism had never asked the question, "What's that?" Although my eldest son lacked many words early on, this question was a part of his verbal repertoire.

  • My son who has autism seemed to show more imagination than my son who does not have autism. This is just one example of how difficult it can be to diagnose this disorder. I remember one of the "tests" they did upon examining my youngest son was to hand him a baby doll and brush where he was expected to brush the baby doll's hair. If he brushed the baby doll's hair this was seen as a sign that he had imagination. My son had very little experience and interest in baby dolls and since he always used a comb for his own hair, I failed to see how this test had any functional value whatsoever. After the testing session was over my son set out play dishes of pretend food for stuffed animals but this did not count as this behavior did not occur during the "testing times."

  • My son who has autism never lined things up in his life. My son who does not have autism used to line things up all the time like cars and trains. Lining toys up in a row can be part of normal play for some kids. It doesn't always indicate autism.

  • Both boys were not great about giving eye contact. But when my eldest son did give eye contact, it was a shared connection. At times when my youngest son with autism gave eye contact it was like he was staring straight through me.

  • My son with autism never showed a need for sameness and routine early on. This was one of the behaviors that he developed over much time. But my son who does not have autism was very hooked into some things remaining the same. For example, we could not get him to wear new shoes when his old ones became too small. I literally had to cut the toes out of his shoes so he would be forced to wear new ones and even then he wanted to wear his old shoes, cut out toes and all. We never had any issues like this with my son who has autism when he was a young child.

  • My son who does not have autism was always interested in other kids and always wanted to play with them. My son who has autism might watch other kids but would rather stay on the fringes without interacting.

  • Aside from the lack of pointing, the other huge indication that my youngest son had autism was that he had unusual responses to stimuli in his environment. He had a great aversion to loud sounds such as car horns, fire alarms, and leaf blowers. He would either cry in frustration or would completely shut down and sleep right then and there. He also would show an unusual attraction to certain stimuli such as wanting to look directly at lights or turn light switches on and off. My son who doe nots have autism never showed any of these aversions or obsessions.

  • My son with autism always enjoyed cuddling and would mold his body to you. My son who does not have autism was more aloof in this way and always wanted to face outward so that he could either get down or interact with his environment. So this was yet another way in which my two sons defied the traditional ways of defining the symptoms of autism.

My point in writing this is not to confuse you but to tell you that sometimes a bullet point list of possible symptoms of autism is not always going to be a sure and fast way to know if your child has this disorder.
I think for me, the behaviors which indicated that there might be a serious problem was the fact that my youngest son did not point or show us things, he did not show much of an interest in other children, he never asked the question, "What's that?"
And he had some unusual reactions to sensory stimuli.
But for another parent and another child, this list may be different.

If you have concerns over your child's development do not hesitate to contact your child's pediatrician.
In addition you can contact your local early intervention agency for children under three or your public school for children who are older than three.
You may also contact the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities at


How about you?
If you are a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, what were some of the early warning signs for your child?
Do share your story here.
You just might help someone else in the process.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."