Patient and family education is important to us. Here you can learn more about autism spectrum disorders in children, and view trusted insights from KidsHealth.org, the No. 1 most viewed health site for children, created by the experts at Nemours. We've also provided information from the most respected nonprofit organizations.
About Autism in Children
Autism — whether mild or severe — is a lifelong condition and your child may need medication, therapy or support throughout his or her life. Thankfully today, unlike only a few decades ago, autism specialists can offer many interventions and therapies that can remarkably increase your child’s skills and abilities. The next few decades (and even the next few years) show great promise of more to come.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means it’s a condition related to the improper development of the neurons in the brain.
Children with an autism spectrum disorder develop “unevenly” and have difficulties in communication and social interactions and exhibit repetitive or restrictive behaviors. Very often, these children have exceptional strengths in other areas, such as math, visual processing and musical and artistic abilities (to name a few). Autism spectrum disorder is an active area of research — every day we’re uncovering important information about the disorder.
Traditional Types of Autism
Autism has had many names, including:
- autistic disorder (or autism) — refers to the more severe cases in which children have difficulty communicating and interacting with others (or they may be unable to communicate), and also exhibit unique repetitive/restrictive behaviors such as hand flapping, spinning or rocking.
- Asperger syndrome (AS, also called Asperger’s) — a milder form of autism in which children have average or above-average intelligence, impaired language skills only in some areas (like language pragmatics, or understanding the meaning of words in certain situations), impaired social skills (problems with reciprocity, or the natural “give and take” that occurs in a conversation) and repetitive/restrictive behaviors, sometimes related to a special interest.
- pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) — Because there are many variations within the autism spectrum — with no two children experiencing the same symptoms or patterns of behavior — today we refer to all types of autism as “autism spectrum disorder” regardless of how mild or severe symptoms may be.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder. And while there are many theories about the causes of autism spectrum disorder in children, large research studies show vaccinations do not increase the risk for the disorder. Other studies show that genes may play a role, and possibly prenatal illness or infections, but it is not caused by anything a mother did, or did not do, during pregnancy. What’s more, autism is not a result of a child’s upbringing, amount of nurturing or environment at home. The cause of autism development disorder continues to be a very active area of study.
Children with an autism spectrum disorder exhibit behavioral symptoms in specific areas, with different degrees of severity, and at different ages or life stages. Some symptoms include:
- delayed babbling or speaking
- does not speak, or is “nonverbal” (but may be able to communicate using pictures or assistive technologies)
- problems understanding the meaning of words
- difficulty starting and sustaining (continuing) conversation
- can only talk about a special interest (no “small talk”)
- does not understand tone, body language or facial expressions
- interprets words literally (may not understand statements like “it’s raining cats and dogs”)
- may speak in a different tone (monotone or high-pitched)
Impaired Social Interaction
- does not engage in interactions or imitation (smiling back or responding to name)
- reduced interest in people
- lack of eye contact
- difficulty making and keeping friends
- difficulty playing games or working in groups (has own rules or way of playing)
- responds to things differently (laughs when it’s serious or cries when it’s not)
- hard time understanding how people think or feel (difficulty with or lack of empathy)
- difficulty seeing other people’s perspective
- difficulty regulating emotions (tantrums when overloaded)
- repeats words over and over
- upset when a routine is disrupted or changed
- hand-flapping, rocking or spinning
- uses toys differently (repeatedly lines items up, spins wheels on vehicles, opens and shuts/turns things on and off)
- intense fixation with details, particularly related to a special interest
Sensory Processing Difficulties
Some children may be easily overloaded by too much — or too little — sensory input. For example, children with an autism spectrum disorder may:
- react adversely to itchy clothing (tags or seams)
- dislike loud noises (vacuum cleaner, school bell, etc.)
- avoid bright lights (particularly flickering of fluorescent lighting)
- avoid being touched or hugged (or conversely, need more touch)
From Nemours' KidsHealth
- Giving Teens a Voice in Health Care Decisions
- What Is ADHD?
- A to Z: Autism
- Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias
- Autism Special Needs Factsheet
- Asperger Syndrome
- Disciplining Your Child With Special Needs
- Occupational Therapy
- Does My Toddler Have a Language Delay?
- Camps for Kids With Special Needs
- Relaxation Techniques for Children With Serious Illness
- Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
- Sending Your Child With Special Needs to Camp
- Raising a Child With Autism: Paige and Iain's Story
- Is There a Connection Between Vaccines and Autism?
- Speech-Language Therapy
- Sleep Problems in Teens
- Brain and Nervous System
- Auditory Processing Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Delayed Speech or Language Development
Trusted External Resources
- The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children, by Dr. Glenn I. Latham
- Educate Toward Recovery: Turning the Tables on Autism, by MA BCBA Robert Schramm
- Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search For A Cure, by Paul A. Offit, MD
Delayed Speech or Language Development
As with other skills and milestones, the age at which kids learn language and start talking can vary. Many babies happily babble "mama" and "dada" well before their first birthday, and most toddlers can say about 20 words by the time they're 18 months old. But what if a 2-year-old isn't really talking yet or only puts two words together?
Knowing what's "normal" and what's not in speech and language development can help parents figure out if there's cause for concern or if their child is right on schedule.
How Are Speech and Language Different?
- Speech is the verbal expression of language and includes articulation (the way sounds and words are formed).
- Language is the entire system of giving and getting information in a meaningful way. It's understanding and being understood through communication — verbal, nonverbal, and written.
What Are Speech or Language Delays?
Speech and language problems differ, but often overlap. For example:
- A child with a language delay might pronounce words well but only be able to put two words together.
- A child with a speech delay might use words and phrases to express ideas but be difficult to understand.
When Do Kids Develop Speech and Language Skills?
The stages of speech and language development are the same for all kids, but the age at which kids develop them can vary a lot.
During routine well-child checkups, doctors look to see if kids have reached developmental milestones at these ages:
Before 12 Months
By the first birthday, babies should be using their voices to relate to their environment. Cooing and babbling are early stages of speech development. At around 9 months, babies begin to string sounds together, use different tones of speech, and say words like "mama" and "dada" (without really understanding what those words mean).
Before 12 months of age, babies also should be paying attention to sound and starting to recognize names of common objects (bottle, binky, etc.). Babies who watch intently but don't react to sound could be showing signs of hearing loss.
By 12 to 15 Months
Kids this age should have a wide range of speech sounds in their babbling (like p, b, m, d, or n), begin to imitate sounds and words they hear, and often say one or more words (not including "mama" and "dada"). Nouns usually come first, like "baby" and "ball." They also should be able to understand and follow simple one-step directions ("Please give me the toy," etc.).
From 18 to 24 Months
Most (but not all) toddlers can say about 20 words by 18 months and 50 or more words by the time they turn 2. By age 2, kids are starting to combine two words to make simple sentences, such as "baby crying" or "Daddy big." A 2-year-old should be able to identify common objects (in person and in pictures); point to eyes, ears, or nose when asked; and follow two-step commands ("Please pick up the toy and give it to me," for example).
From 2 to 3 Years
Parents often see huge gains in their child's speech. A toddler's vocabulary should increase (to too many words to count) and he or she should routinely combine three or more words into sentences.
Comprehension also should increase — by age 3, a child should begin to understand what it means to "put it on the table" or "put it under the bed." Kids also should begin to identify colors and understand descriptive concepts (big versus little, for example).
What Are the Signs of a Speech or Language Delay?
A baby who doesn't respond to sound or who isn't vocalizing should be seen by a doctor right away. But often, it's hard for parents to know if their child is just taking a little longer to reach a speech or language milestone, or if there's a problem that needs medical attention.
Here are some things to watch for. Call your doctor if your child:
- by 12 months: isn't using gestures, such as pointing or waving bye-bye
- by 18 months: prefers gestures over vocalizations to communicate
- by 18 months: has trouble imitating sounds
- has trouble understanding simple verbal requests
- by 2 years: can only imitate speech or actions and doesn't produce words or phrases spontaneously
- by 2 years: says only certain sounds or words repeatedly and can't use oral language to communicate more than his or her immediate needs
- by 2 years: can't follow simple directions
- by 2 years: has an unusual tone of voice (such as raspy or nasal sounding)
- is more difficult to understand than expected for his or her age:
- Parents and regular caregivers should understand about half of a child's speech at 2 years and about three quarters at 3 years.
- By 4 years old, a child should be mostly understood, even by people who don't know the child.
What Causes Speech or Language Delays?
A speech delay in an otherwise normally developing child might be due to an oral impairment, like problems with the tongue or palate (the roof of the mouth). And a short frenulum (the fold beneath the tongue) can limit tongue movement for speech production.
Many kids with speech delays have oral-motor problems. These happen when there's a problem in the areas of the brain responsible for speech, making it hard to coordinate the lips, tongue, and jaw to produce speech sounds. These kids also might have other oral-motor problems, such as feeding difficulties.
Hearing problems are also commonly related to delayed speech. That's why an audiologist should test a child's hearing whenever there's a speech concern. Kids who have trouble hearing may have trouble articulating as well as understanding, imitating, and using language.
Ear infections, especially chronic infections, can affect hearing. Simple ear infections that have been treated, though, should not affect speech. And, as long as there is normal hearing in at least one ear, speech and language will develop normally.
How Are Speech or Language Delays Diagnosed?
If you or your doctor think that your child might have a problem, it's important to get an early evaluation by a speech-language pathologist. You can find a speech-language pathologist on your own, or ask your health care provider to refer you to one.
The speech-language pathologist will evaluate your child's speech and language skills within the context of total development. The pathologist will do standardized tests and look for milestones in speech and language development.
The speech-language pathologist will also assess:
- what your child understands (called receptive language)
- what your child can say (called expressive language)
- if your child is attempting to communicate in other ways, such as pointing, head shaking, gesturing, etc.
- sound development and clarity of speech
- your child's oral-motor status (how the mouth, tongue, palate, etc., work together for speech as well as eating and swallowing)
Based on the test results, the speech-language pathologist might recommend speech therapy for your child.
How Does Speech Therapy Help?
The speech therapist will work with your child to improve speech and language skills, and show you what to do at home to help your child.
What Can Parents Do?
Parental involvement is an important part of helping kids who have a speech or language problem.
Here are a few ways to encourage speech development at home:
- Spend a lot of time communicating with your child. Even during infancy — talk, sing, and encourage imitation of sounds and gestures.
- Read to your child. Start reading when your child is a baby. Look for age-appropriate soft or board books or picture books that encourage kids to look while you name the pictures. Try starting with a classic book (such as Pat the Bunny, in which your child imitates the patting motion) or books with textures that kids can touch. Later, let your child point to recognizable pictures and try to name them. Then move on to nursery rhymes, which have rhythmic appeal. Progress to predictable books (such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) that let kids anticipate what happens. Your little one may even start to memorize favorite stories.
- Use everyday situations. To reinforce your child's speech and language, talk your way through the day. For example, name foods at the grocery store, explain what you're doing as you cook a meal or clean a room, point out objects around the house, and as you drive, point out sounds you hear. Ask questions and acknowledge your child's responses (even when they're hard to understand). Keep things simple, but avoid "baby talk."
Recognizing and treating speech and language delays early on is the best approach. With proper therapy and time, your child will be better able to communicate with you and the rest of the world.
Reviewed by: Kelly L. Komisaruk, M-Ed, CCC/SLP
Date reviewed: June 23, 2017