How comparing your child’s development with typical milestones can help diagnose autism early, when intervention is crucial

Signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often appear before a child’s second birthday. There are important social and language milestones to look for as your child grows, and you may also have a gut feeling that something isn’t right. Parents are experts on their children, and should always trust their intuition. If you sense there might be a problem, it’s important to talk to your child’s doctor and express your concerns.

Early intervention makes a difference

Research shows that early intervention is crucial to improving outcomes for kids with autism. Parents are often able to pick up on differences in their child’s development long before such symptoms might be noticed during a doctor visit. Studies show that parents are exceptionally capable in detecting early signs of autism—especially when there is an older sibling or other family member with autism.

Don’t wait to talk to a professional

Sometimes, even though parents have certain concerns, they may put off seeking help from a professional. Parents may be waiting to see if the child grows out of certain behaviors or may be unsure if what their child is showing is a real concern.

However, this time is critical. There are many relatively simple interventions that parents can do at home that provide huge benefits. This is especially true for very young children who are just beginning to show signs of autism. Remember, it is never too early or too late to provide support for your child.

Simple milestones you can track

The following milestones are examples of what typically developing children achieve, based on updated CDC guidance. If your child is not meeting these milestones or you have any concerns, talk to your pediatrician. The milestones below include milestones that most children (greater than or equal to 75%) would be expected to achieve by the specific age. Please note that research regarding when infants and toddlers should reach various milestones continues to evolve, so if you have any concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician.

9 months

  • Smiles and laughs while looking at you and playing games, like peek-a-boo
  • Vocalizes, often with babbles
  • Looks for objects when dropped, such as things falling off their highchair
  • Shows several facial expressions
  • Sits without support and gets to a sitting position by themself

12 months

  • Enjoys playing social games, like peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake
  • Uses gestures, like pointing or waving
  • Calls a parent by a special name, like “mama” or “dada”
  • Puts one item into a another, like a block in a cup
  • Pulls up to stand, and walks while holding on to furniture

18 months

  • Plays with toys in a simple way, such as pushing a toy train vImitates your actions while playing, like pretending to vacuum
  • Uses three or more words, besides “mama” or “dada”
  • Follows one-step directions without gestures, like giving you a cup when you say, “Give it to me.”
  • Points to show you something interesting
  • Feeds themself with their fingers
  • Climbs on and off a couch or chair without help

24 months

  • Notices when others are hurt or upset, like pausing when someone is crying
  • Plays with more than one similar toy at the same time, such as putting toy animals in a toy barn
  • Says at least two words together, like “Want juice” or “Car go.”
  • Uses more gestures than just waving and pointing, like holding up hands to say “Where did it go?”
  • Walks up a few stairs with or without help

36 months

  • Notices other children and joins them to play
  • Talks in conversation with back-and-forth exchanges
  • Asks “who,” “what,” “where,” or “why” questions
  • Uses speech that is mostly easy to understand
  • Puts some clothes on by themself

We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.