Autism Symptoms

Autism symptoms include delays in the development of social skills, with a wide range of severity. Some also have intellectual or behavioral problems.

Because autism is actually a spectrum of developmental disorders, there’s a wide range of symptoms that can be associated with it. However, there are certain features that are common to children with autism. These symptoms typically begin to appear before the age of 3, and they persist throughout life.

Autism causes delays in the development of social skills, and may also cause intellectual and behavioral problems. Some of the symptoms that can be associated with autism include:

• Difficulty with spoken communication, including both understanding and speaking, as well as with non-verbal communication
• Difficulty relating to others and making friends; may prefer to be alone
• Unusual attachment to routines, becoming disturbed at any change
• Unusual ways of playing, or preoccupation with unusual objects
• Repetitive body movements, such as spinning and hand flapping

Autism includes some degree of difficulty with social interactions and communication with others. Children with autism usually have speech delays, and sometimes they may lose language abilities that they previously had. They may have unusual speech patterns, such as robot-like speech. Those with autism usually have difficulty beginning or maintaining a conversation.

Additionally, they may lack eye contact, facial expression, and other non-verbal means of communication. They don’t express emotions, and may have difficulty in understanding and interpreting the emotions of others.

People with autism often have difficulty forming relationships. Children with autism may resist being held or cuddled by a parent. These children prefer to play alone, rather than with other children or adults. A sign of autism in very young children is that they don’t share objects of interest with others, such as by pointing at the object or bringing it to show to someone else.

Autism usually includes an unusual attachment to routines. Although most children prefer routines, those with autism are unable to tolerate even a small deviation from their routines. They may become disturbed and extremely uncooperative at any change. They are often unusually sensitive to sensory stimulation, such as sound, light, and touch. They may have very specific food preferences, such as only foods of a certain color or a certain texture, or foods arranged in a certain way.

Children with autism often develop unusual ways of playing. They may organize their toys in specific unusual ways. They may become intensely fixated on particular objects, or on particular details of objects. They don’t engage in “pretend play,” preferring a more literal way of interacting with objects.

Children with autism also often display unusual ways of moving their bodies, although exactly how this occurs can vary. Many have problems with coordination, and may seem stiff or use unusual body language. Some display rhythmic behaviors like hand-flapping, spinning, or head-banging. These are often an attempt to self-soothe when the child is confronted with deviations from routine or overstimulation.

While movies like Rainman have popularized the idea that people with severe autism are savants with superhuman intelligence or skills, this represents only a small portion of those with autism. Most children with autism have lower than normal intelligence, although some have normal to high intelligence, but have trouble communicating their thoughts.


Mayo Clinic Staff. “Autism spectrum disorder: Symptoms.” Mayo Clinic website (2014).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Facts About ASD.” CDC website (2015).

National Institutes of Health. “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” MedlinePlus (2015).

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