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Signs That a Toddler May Have High-Functioning Autism


“I read the article ‘Can Parents Detect High-Functioning Autism In Their Infant?’ And I was wondering if I could get the answer to the same question – except for toddlers rather than infants? What are some of the symptoms of high functioning autism at that age approx.?”

While symptoms of High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger’s are sometimes noticeable as early as infancy, many moms and dads sense something different about their undiagnosed youngster by his or her 3rd birthday. In some cases, early language skills are retained, but the lag in motor development may be the first sign that something is different than "typical" 3-year-old behavior.

Toddlers (approximately ages 1 to 4), may not show specific symptoms of HFA or Asperger’s, but certain behavioral oddities may be noticed by parents as follows:
  • Actions (e.g., waving or giving a toy when asked) seem like simple tasks. However, to a youngster with HFA, these simple gestures may not occur "on schedule" and may instead be delayed. This is because such gestures involve interaction between the youngster and another individual, which are difficult for kids on the autism spectrum.
  • Anomalies in nonverbal communication are often apparent in these young people. A lack of eye contact may occur accompanied by limited facial expressions which correspond with words the toddler is speaking. The youngster may also exhibit unusual body movements and gestures. These anomalies become more apparent by the age of 3.
  • Joint attention is the concept that two individuals (e.g., child and parent) can be focused on the same thing (e.g., looking at a picture in a book together). A toddler with HFA may have a hard time getting this concept.
  • Most HFA toddlers need to establish rigid repetition and routine in their daily activities in order to minimize “meltdowns,” sensory overload, anxiety, etc.
  • A toddler with HFA may also show symptoms of ADHD. 
  • One of the developmental milestones of the first year of life is to be able to point to a desired object. By one year of age, a youngster will probably be pointing to objects that interest him or her. However, a toddler with HFA may not reach this milestone until later.
  • One of the most apparent symptoms of HFA in toddlers is their intense interest in a single topic (e.g., fans, trains or maps). They often want to know - and spend a lot of time trying to learn - about their hobby or interest, and they may use an advanced vocabulary and exhibit a high level of expertise on the subject.
  • Problems with motor skills are a common symptom. Delayed learning is usually noticeable in kids on the autism spectrum by the age of 3 (e.g., playing catch, potty training, learning to ride a bike, walking on tip toes, etc.). Their movement may be described as clumsy or uncoordinated. 
  • Repetitive interests and behaviors are defining components of the diagnosis of HFA. However, repetitive interests are essentially very normal in toddlers. While it is very difficult to determine with such young kids, some signs that behaviors and interests have crossed the line from, for example, "a normal toddler who loves planes" to "an obsessed toddler who seems too wrapped up in planes" may be noticed by parents. These include a very specific interest (e.g., not just "planes" but "the wings of planes") – an interest that is unusual compared to the HFA child’s peers (e.g., a 3-year-old who intensely focuses on AAA batteries). The child may also find it difficult to shift focus from the area of interest to other things.
  • Some toddlers on the autism spectrum will have an unusual sensitivity to loud sounds or lights. They may also be bothered by other physical stimuli (e.g., sensitivity to the way certain clothing or material feels, the need to have their socks to be on their feet in a particular way, etc.).
  • The interests of a toddler with HFA tend to be very limited, causing the youngster to have a very narrow focus of activities and interests.
  • The child may seem to have one-sided social interaction and limited ability to form friendships.
  • He or she may often talk incessantly about one subject, without acknowledging the listener.
  • Toddler’s with HFA usually have difficulty in social situations (e.g., imaginative play with other kids).
  • They are often not diagnosed until later in childhood as they sometimes learn to read very early. The perceived advancement overshadows the fact that the youngster with HFA often can’t comprehend the words he or she is reading.
  • Unlike toddlers with autism, a toddler with HFA generally does not experience difficulties in language development and speech. Vocabulary is often advanced with HFA, though as language develops, the parent may notice that the youngster has difficulty properly using his or her vocabulary.


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