Spot it Early: Red Flags of Autism in Toddlers

The Gist of It

  • Early identification of autism could lead to early intervention which can have a positive impact on your child’s health and well-being.
  • If your child display signs of autism, it’s important to get a professional diagnosis as symptoms could be common among toddlers.
  • There are many behavioral and educational programmes that can help your child with autism grow up confident and capable.

Many parents are well aware of autism, but some of us may be unfamiliar with how to identify its symptoms. However, discovering autism early is crucial to the growth and well-being of your child later on in life.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a child’s social communication development. In addition, children with ASD also display a series of repetitive and restricted interest.

One of the main reasons researchers are interested in early identification of ASD symptoms is that it could lead to early intervention which can have a positive impact on the child and family’s health and well-being. Findings have found support that early intervention for young children with ASD will improve their chances of both economic and living independence.

What are the Early Signs of ASD?

Studies following infants with a familial risk for ASD have provided insight to the early symptoms of children between 12-24 months who later develop ASD.


These are some of the symptoms that a 12-24 month year old may exhibit if they suffer from ASD:

  • Show unusual reactions to certain tastes, sounds, and/or texture.
  • Less likely to show or point to things that are out of reach
  • Less likely to use gestures and/or a limited range of gestures in interaction
  • Less likely to make eye contact
  • Less likely to imitate
  • Less likely to respond to his or her name even after other attempts (e.g. making noises, touching)
  • Less likely to use a combination of eye gaze, gesture and complex vocalizations in interaction
  • Display delays in expressive and receptive language
  • Display repetitive behaviors such as rocking, hand flapping, and/or arm waving
  • Display less functional play (e.g. lining up toy cars instead of moving it forward and backward)
Source: talkaboutautism

What to Do if Your Child Displays Early Signs of ASD?

It is important to highlight that it is common for some typically developing toddlers to show these symptoms.

Only a medical professional or clinical psychologist can determine if your child is at risk for an ASD. If your child displays these early symptoms, do schedule for your child to get a proper assessment by a clinical or child psychologist with a background on ASD assessment tools.

ASD can be reliably diagnosed at age three with a detailed developmental history, clinical observation, and/or Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). ADOS can only be administered by a certified mental health professional or medical doctor.

After Being Diagnosed with ASD, What Next?

It is not easy for parents to come to terms with the diagnosis. However, it is important to note that early intervention is beneficial for your child. With an early diagnosis of ASD, you are then able to look out for different therapeutic interventions for your child.

How Do You Help Your Child Who Has an ASD?


Currently, there is no ‘cure’ for ASD. However, children with ASD can develop their skills with a range of behavioral and educational programs that have been found to be effective. What may work for a child may not do the same for the other as no two children with autism are the same.

Below are some guidelines on what are the important aspects to look out for in an intervention program:

  1. Communication skills (e.g. speech, language skills)
  2. Social interaction skills (e.g. turn taking, eye contact)
  3. Cognitive skills (e.g. imaginative play, IQ)
  4. Motor skills (e.g. fine motor such as cutting, holding the pencil)

On the other hand, it is also very important for parents to find support for themselves through parent support group, parenting classes, and/or mental health professionals. Parenting is not an easy task particularly if your child requires a new set of parenting skills.

Support for Autism

In Malaysia, there are centers that provide early diagnosis and early intervention of ASD. National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) in particular is a non-profit, non-governmental welfare organization and has established 14 Early Intervention Programmes all around Malaysia.

Other centers such as Autism Link and Early Autism Project provide services for families who have a child or queries about a child with ASD. Other psychological centers and clinics may also provide assessments, treatments and support for families with children with ASD.

With an appropriate intervention program and support for the child, your child can achieve as fulfilling lives as others. If in doubt, have your child checked out.

[See also: Inside the Mind of Someone with Autism]


What’s your greatest fear when it comes to having a child with autism? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.


Contributed by Michelle Liew, a child psychologist at The Mind Psychological Services & Training.
References 1. Jones, E. J. H., Gliga, T., Bedford, R., Charman, T., & Johnson, M. H. (2014). Developmental pathways to autism: a review of prospective studies of infants at risk. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 39, 1–33. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.12.001 2. Simonoff, E. (2012). Autism spectrum disorder: prevalence and cause may be bound together. The British Journal of Psychiatry201(2), 88-89. 3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Cautionary statement for forensic use of DSM-5. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). 4. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2013). Managing autism in children and young people. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. 5. Dawson, G., & Osterling, J. (1997). Early intervention in autism. In M. J. Guralnick (Ed.), The effectiveness of early intervention (pp. 307-326). Baltimore: Brookes.

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