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. If your child is not meeting these milestones, talk to your pediatrician.

9 months

  • Smiles and laughs while looking at you
  • Vocalizes, often with babbles
  • Reaches for items he wants

12 months

  • Responds by looking when his name is called
  • Enjoys playing social games, like peek-a-boo
  • Uses gestures, like pointing
  • Uses consonant sounds and a few simple words, like “mama” or “baba”

18 months

  • Plays pretend with dolls or stuffed animals
  • Imitates your words and actions while playing
  • Uses at least 10 words
  • Makes many different consonant sounds
  • Identifies familiar people and body parts

24 months

  • Shows interest in playing with other children
  • Puts many actions together during play, like stirring, pouring, giving a doll a bottle
  • Uses at least 50 words
  • Identifies objects when named
  • Makes simple sentences, like, “Mommy go outside.” And, “What’s that?”

36 months

  • Enjoys imaginative play with others
  • Takes turns in conversation
  • Responds to questions
  • Uses longer sentences
  • Follows two- to three-step instructions
  • Uses speech that is mostly easy to understand

Learn more about your child's development

If you're expecting or have a newborn under two months old, you can help us learn more about autism by participating in our simple research study. Plus, you'll receive valuable developmental feedback about your child. Enroll today.

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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.