Recognising the Early Signs of Autism and Developmental Differences in Toddlers

(Guest Author, Kristen Callow)

As a mother, I can appreciate that there can be a fine line between fretting over every nuance of your child’s development and being diligent in keeping an antenna up for possible issues.

I started noticing differences about my daughter’s development when she was just over a year old, when this playful picture was snapped. Nothing blazing – just a series of “quirks” that seemed out of the ordinary: she didn’t mouth toys or show any interest in/ability to eat solid foods of any sort; she refused to wear shoes or socks (good thing we were living in the tropics at the time!); she was completely fascinated by letters, numbers, and symbols and would look for them everywhere (serial numbers on toys, number plates on cars, etc.); she would take my hand to guide me to things rather than point to them; she often looked at things through the corner of her eye; she engaged well with adults but showed no interest in her peers at playgroup; and she was very sensitive to loud noises.

But while my daughter seemed “different” when I compared her to other young toddlers at our play group or kinder gym classes, she was also happy, smiley, affectionate with me, and meeting all of her physical milestones. So I initially chalked up my concerns to being a paranoid, first time mother (and clearly, I knew little about autism if I thought that being autistic somehow precluded a child being happy, smiling or affectionate!) Everyone around me — my friends, family members, my husband, my online mothers’ group, and even our generalist paediatrician — told me not to worry. She was just “gifted and quirky,” “sensitive” and “marching to the beat of her own drum…”

Their words, while well intentioned, only reinforced my feeling that I was a stereotypical nervous mother. Nobody encouraged me to explore my concerns further until, finally, more than a year later, two friends intervened and gave me the courage to seek the opinion of a specialist. For any of you who have niggling concerns about your own child, but need a gentle nudge to act upon them, I hope that this message will encourage you to trust your gut and take action. If you are worried about your child’s development — physical, social, speech issues, sensory sensitivities, whatever — please raise those concerns with a qualified professional. You are not being silly or paranoid. Your Early Childhood Nurse or GP should be able to do a relatively simple developmental screen, but for a far more thorough assessment, ask your GP for a referral to a good developmental (specialist) paediatrician.

Please also bear in mind that familiarity with autism and other developmental conditions can really vary from practitioner to practitioner. If you feel that your concerns are being dismissed (as mine were) or if you are told to “just wait and see,” please feel empowered to push for answers. Parents of children of kids with special needs are often great sources of recommendations for GP and specialists who will take concerns seriously and make appropriate evaluations. There are many quality resources on line that can help parents and loved ones recognise some of the earliest signs of potential autism or other development needs. This link below sets forth Hallmark Development Milestones (key social, emotional & communication milestones) for babies/toddlers. This can be a good launching off point for a discussion with a health care professional about your child’s overall development.


On a more specific note, here are some of the very early red flags for autism spectrum disorders from the valuable “Raising Children” web site, which has some really good information. Please note that some children will have many of these early warning signs, whereas others might have only a few. Also, any loss of social or language skills during this period is cause for concern.


Additionally, the University of California-San Diego’s Autism Center of Excellence, a world leader in research, early detection & early intervention, has some excellent, very easy-to-digest information on its web site.


And finally, this video, from the world renowned Kennedy Krieger Institute, shows some of the common early behavioral signs of autism. Well worth a watch.


If you have friends or loved ones who raise concerns about their own child’s development, please don’t dismiss these concerns with “Don’t worry.” As well intentioned as that advice might be, it could have the effect – as it did with me – of preventing parents from raising their concerns with a qualified medical professional in a timely manner. Instead, please encourage them to get things properly checked out. When it comes to something as important as child development, it is better to err on the side of caution. There is so much that can be done to help autistic kids and kids with other developmental issues reach their full potential, especially when these issues are caught early. Waiting lists for various professionals can be long and funding support is overwhelmingly skewed toward young (below school age) children, hence another set of reasons to take action sooner rather than later. In the words of the now retired, straight-shooting developmental paediatrician who diagnosed my daughter,

“No child was ever harmed by an assessment or quality early intervention, but plenty of children could benefit from receiving timely support.”

Thank you for helping me spread this message to families who might benefit from it.

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