Characteristics of Autism in Toddlers Revealed

Unravel key characteristics of autism in toddlers, from sensory processing to early interventions.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
May 30, 2024
Published On
May 30, 2024

Understanding Autism in Toddlers

Autism, a complex neurodevelopmental disorder, manifests in early childhood and continues throughout a person's life. Recognizing the signs and understanding the characteristics of autism in toddlers can be instrumental in seeking early intervention services, which are known to improve outcomes.

Autism and Developmental Milestones

Autism in toddlers often presents as a delay in meeting developmental milestones related to social interaction, communication, and behavior. For example, parents are encouraged to speak to a doctor if their child does not respond to their name by 12 months, use any gestures like pointing by 12 months, engage in babbling or “back and forth” sounds by 12 months, say any words by 16 months, or say no two-word meaningful phrases by 24 months.

In some cases, signs of autism may become more apparent in preschool or school age when the developmental gap between them and their peers widens. Diagnosis of autism in children often occurs when they are in primary school, as their social communication and behavioral characteristics start to differentiate them from their peers.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of autism in toddlers can be difficult to recognize for those who are not experts. While some signs are common in all young children, they are more frequently observed in children with autism [1].

Play behavior can provide key insights into the presence of autism. Autistic toddlers generally do not advance from solitary play and often have difficulty sharing. They engage in activities that only serve the purpose of self-regulating themselves or stimulating themselves, known as "stimming." [2].

Moreover, autistic children may engage in parallel play, where they participate in solitary activities, such as coloring or painting, in the same room as others, granting them the freedom to choose when to talk. This allows for socialization while respecting the autistic child's boundaries.

Autistic children may have difficulty in social communication, displaying challenges in interacting with playmates verbally or through physical cues. They may struggle to understand social cues, leading to behaviors such as interrupting, speaking louder than expected, or finding it hard to give others a chance to contribute to a conversation [2].

One of the core characteristics of autism is Restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBs). RRBs include behaviors such as preoccupation with restricted patterns of interest, adherence to specific routines, repetitive motor mannerisms, and preoccupation with parts of objects. The prevalence and severity of RRBs in very young children with autism and pervasive developmental disorders-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) were found to be higher than in children with nonspectrum disorders and typically developing children.

Recognizing these signs and characteristics of autism in toddlers is crucial for early intervention, providing the best opportunity for support and treatment. With early diagnosis and appropriate services, many children with autism can improve significantly and lead productive lives.

Autism and Sensory Processing

One of the key aspects that differentiates children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is their unique sensory processing. This section will delve into understanding sensory overload and how sensory differences affect these children in a school context.

Understanding Sensory Overload

Sensory overload, one of the crucial characteristics of autism in toddlers, is a condition where the brain gets overwhelmed by excessive sensory input, causing it to enter into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This can be triggered by overwhelming information from the five senses - hearing, smell, touch, sight, and taste.

Based on available research, it's estimated that the prevalence of sensory symptoms among children and adults with autism is between 69% and 93%. This prevalence led to the inclusion of sensory overload as a diagnostic criterion for ASD.

In addition to the five core senses, children with autism may exhibit overreactions or underreactions to two additional senses: the proprioceptive and vestibular senses. These senses affect an individual’s motor skills, balance, and body awareness.

Sensory symptoms in autism are often expressed as hyper-responsiveness (over-responsive) or hypo-responsiveness (under-responsive) to various stimuli such as sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Each individual with autism is unique, not only in terms of their core symptoms but also their response to various stimuli [4].

Sensory Differences in School Context

In a school context, children with autism may face challenges due to their sensory differences. They might have difficulty focusing in class due to sensory distractions such as bright lights, loud noises, or the texture of their clothes. These sensory stimuli could lead to discomfort, distress, or even a meltdown.

Therefore, it's crucial for educators and support staff to be aware of these sensory differences and make necessary accommodations. This could include creating a quiet, low-stimuli area for the child to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed, or incorporating sensory breaks into the day to help them manage their sensory input.

In conclusion, understanding sensory overload and recognizing the unique sensory responses of children with autism can greatly assist in creating a supportive and inclusive environment for their growth and development.

Non-Verbal Communication in Autism

Non-verbal communication forms a significant part of the interaction process, and it's especially important to consider when understanding the characteristics of autism in toddlers. This section will focus on the role of head movements and other non-verbal cues in autism.

Head Movements in Autism

Head movements, a key form of nonverbal communication, differ in autistic individuals compared to their neurotypical peers. These differences include higher rates, acceleration, and complexity in head movements while watching movies and greater and more stereotypical head movements during dyadic social interactions [5].

Despite the significance of head movements in nonverbal communication, research in this area is relatively scarce compared to other forms of nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions and gestures.

A machine learning model using head movement data from both interaction partners (dyadic level) achieved 80% accuracy in predicting the diagnostic status of individuals with autism. In contrast, the same model achieved lower accuracy (69.2%) when using head movement data from the participant only (monadic level). This highlights the importance of studying back-and-forth social communication cues within a true social context [5].

Movements along the pitch and yaw directions have the greatest impact in distinguishing between autistic and neurotypical individuals based on head movement patterns during conversations.

Role of Non-Verbal Cues

Non-verbal cues play a crucial role in social interactions, and their understanding forms an essential part of autism characteristics. Autistic toddlers may exhibit differences in interpreting or using these cues compared to their neurotypical peers. This can affect their ability to engage in reciprocal social interactions, impacting the development of social and communication skills.

Understanding these differences and how they impact social interaction is crucial for education professionals and caregivers. This knowledge can help in tailoring communication strategies and interventions that cater to the unique needs of autistic toddlers.

Moreover, recognizing and respecting these non-verbal cues can promote more meaningful and effective communication, fostering better social understanding and inclusivity for autistic individuals. Future research in this area holds the potential to further enhance our understanding of autism and improve support strategies for those with the condition.

Repetitive Behaviors in Autism

One of the defining characteristics of autism in toddlers is the presence of repetitive behaviors. These behaviors, also known as stereotypy, can range from physical actions to verbal repetitions and can have a significant impact on a child's daily life and routines.

What is Stereotypy?

Stereotypy refers to the repetitive behaviors and fixed interests that are often seen in individuals with autism. These behaviors can vary greatly from person to person, ranging from physical actions like repetitive rocking or flicking, to verbal repetitions like constantly reciting scripts or asking the same question multiple times. Some individuals might engage in violent stereotyped behaviors like head-banging, while others may only repeat behaviors occasionally when they are stressed, anxious, or upset.

According to the DSM-5, repetitive behaviors and fixed interests are considered key traits of autism. They are often characterized as purposeless, obsessive, highly selective, and unchanging. Some common examples of these behaviors include fidgeting, hand-flapping, and word repetition, as well as a desire for sameness and intense interests.

Researchers categorize repetitive behaviors into two groups: "lower-order" behaviors like fidgeting, hand-flapping, or word repetition, and "higher-order" behaviors characterized by a preference for routine, sameness, and intense interests. The causes of these behaviors remain unknown, and various treatments have been explored with differing levels of success.

Impact of Routine Changes

Changes in routine can often lead to increased levels of anxiety or anger in individuals with autism, leading to a rise in repetitive behaviors. This reaction can be seen even in individuals with low support needs. Some stereotypy behaviors are easily noticeable, such as rocking, door opening and closing, or head shaking, while others, like reciting the same script verbatim, may not be obvious to casual observers.

While some individuals with autism can engage in these repetitive behaviors constantly, others may only do so when under stress. While these behaviors can provide comfort and familiarity for some individuals, they can also hinder participation in real-world activities and pose obstacles to communication and engagement for others.

Understanding these behaviors and their triggers can be beneficial in managing the impact of routine changes and reducing the frequency and intensity of stereotypy in individuals with autism.

Language and Communication Challenges

Language and communication challenges form a significant part of the characteristics of autism in toddlers. Children with autism often find difficulty in developing language skills, understanding spoken language, and communicating nonverbally through gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. These challenges can vary greatly among children, with some having limited or no speech abilities, while others may have rich vocabularies but struggle with the meaning and rhythm of words and sentences.

Unconventional Use of Language

Children on the autism spectrum might use language in unconventional ways to communicate. For example, they might repeat a phrase without actually wanting what is being asked for. This behavior, while confusing for others, is a way for them to express their needs or desires [8].

Moreover, non-verbal communication is a significant aspect of how children with autism communicate. They may rely heavily on non-verbal cues, gestures, or facial expressions to convey their messages. This reliance on non-verbal communication further highlights the unique ways that children with autism navigate communication challenges.

Impact of Communication Delays

Most children on the autism spectrum show delays in nonverbal communication and spoken language. For example, they may have words to label things but not to ask for things. They might also repeat what they hear for a longer period, a behavior known as parroting or echoing, using the tone of voice they heard.

In addition, children on the autism spectrum may demonstrate differences in the development of gestures, pretend play, and social language. These differences can often go unnoticed by families and healthcare providers due to their subtlety, but they can significantly impact a child's ability to communicate effectively.

These communication challenges highlight the need for tailored interventions and supports to help children with autism improve their communication skills and express their thoughts and feelings effectively. By understanding the unique communication styles and challenges of children with autism, parents, caregivers, and professionals can better support them in their developmental journey.

Interventions for Autism

In the context of the characteristics of autism in toddlers, understanding the need for interventions and the role of specialized professionals can be crucial. This section will delve into the importance of early intervention and the vital role of speech-language pathologists.

Importance of Early Intervention

For young children with autism, early interventions focused on developing their speech and language skills can be significantly beneficial. These children often face challenges in understanding body language, vocal tones, and the meanings behind different vocal inflections, which can hinder their interactions with others [7]. Therefore, attention to pre-language skills such as eye contact, gestures, body movements, imitation, babbling, and other vocalizations is crucial in helping these children improve their communication abilities.

Early intervention can also help in managing sensory processing issues, which are common in children with ASD. These children frequently have difficulties in processing sensory information, which can be a limitation when participating in different contexts, such as school. Sensory processing dysfunction can present in the form of hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity to stimuli, often eliciting behavioral responses that are unusual or different from those expected in a neurotypical person.

Role of Speech-Language Pathologists

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) play a critical role in evaluating and treating children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to prevent further developmental delays and help improve their communication skills. SLPs focus on enhancing the child's ability to understand and use language effectively, taking into account both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication.

The role of SLPs extends beyond direct therapy sessions with the child. They also provide guidance to parents and caregivers, helping them understand how to support their child's communication development. Highly structured specialized programs are often effective, with involvement from parents and caregivers being essential for incorporating treatment into the child's daily life.

In summary, while the characteristics of autism in toddlers can present unique challenges, early intervention and the support of specialized professionals such as SLPs can make a significant difference in the child's development. Through targeted strategies and therapies, these children can improve their communication abilities, better manage sensory processing issues, and navigate their daily lives with greater ease.