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Autism can be detected in children by age 3, and sometimes as early as 18 months. Autistic behaviors vary in type and severity in each child-psychiatrists will place children diagnosed with autism on the autistic disorder spectrum. The spectrum runs from low-functioning autism, characterized by severe delays in communication development, to higher-functioning autism, like children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. These children don’t exhibit the same kind delay in communication development; in fact, their communication level may exceed that of their peers. Children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome are often extremely verbal, but they lack even the most basic of social skills. Every child who displays autistic behavior and is diagnosed with autism will be placed somewhere on the autistic disorder spectrum.

One of the problems with diagnosing autism is that many of the hallmark behaviors are abstract, not concrete. According to the World Health Organization, “children with autism are marked by delays in their social interaction, language as used in social communication, or symbolic or imaginative play.” Essentially, parents are asked to evaluate their young child’s language and social skills in relation to their child’s peers. Usually, parents will begin to suspect that something is amiss before their children enter the traditional school system, and many public school districts now offer Early Intervention classes to help identify the strengths of each autistic child, and parents and educational professionals decide together how to proceed with the autistic child’s education.

Because autistic children show little regard for the world around them, it probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that the word “autistic” comes from the Greek word autos, or “self.” All of the behaviors associated with autism are characterized by a different perception of “self” and the surrounding world. Many autistic children react strongly, even violently, to outside stimuli such as lights, sound, and touch. The degree to which the child is affected (or not affected) varies greatly from one child to another.

Autistic behavior in children is sometimes hard to detect as many autistic children are developing “normally” until they suffer a sudden regression. Some typical autism behaviors are simply a normal delay in a particular area of development, which is why it’s vital to be as informed and educated about autism as possible. However, developmental delays added with some other standard autistic child behavior can be an early indicator of autism.

Autistic children struggle with non-verbal communication. Tone of voice, body language, and gestures are often misunderstood or not understood at all. Autistic children often avoid eye contact and playing with other children. Finally, obsessive repetitive behavior patterns and strict adherence to a routine are other indicators of autism in children. These children may have intense, violent reactions when asked to deviate from their routines or try something different.

If you think your child is displaying some autistic behaviors, you are not alone. Recent statistics suggest that 1 in 300 children are born with autism; boys far outnumbering girls. Your family physician or other trusted medical professional can refer you to a reputable child psychiatrist for an initial appointment, observation, or testing. When autism is diagnosed early, extensive therapy and other treatments can greatly improve your autistic child’s quality of life.