Autism Diagnosis

Signs for Infants and Children

Early signs of autism can often be detected in infants as young as 6-18 months. For example, if a baby fixates on objects or does not respond to people, he or she may be exhibiting early signs of an autism spectrum disorder.

Older babies and toddlers may fail to respond to their names, avoid eye contact, lack joint attention (sharing an experience of observing an object or event by gazing or pointing), or engage in repetitive movements such as rocking or arm flapping. They may play with toys in unusual ways, like lining them up or focusing on parts of toys rather than the whole. Parents who notice these signs, or are concerned their children are not meeting developmental milestones, should contact their pediatricians and request a developmental screening. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends routine screening of all infants for autism as part of 18-month and 24-month well-baby examinations. 

Learn more about the early warning signs of autism including milestones for development up to age 5 and what to do if you are concerned.

Early diagnosis and early intervention are critical. Studies show that about half of children with autism who are in an evidence-based early intervention program from age 3-5 can gain enough skills to be mainstreamed for kindergarten. There are now evidence based interventions for babies as young as 12 months old, and studies are underway to design treatments for 9 month old babies at risk for autism.

Signs for Adolescents and Adults

Although autism is commonly diagnosed in children, it is possible that an ASD does not go diagnosed until adolescence or adulthood. In this population, autism manifests itself as difficulties in socialization, atypical communication, and restricted mental flexibility. Just like for children, certain red flags can suggest that an adult may have autism. These signs can appear at any stage of adulthood, be it age 19 or age 60.  Just as getting a diagnosis at a young age opens the door to therapies and medications that can prove effective, an adult diagnosis can help improve the quality of life of higher-functioning autistic adults.

It can be difficult to propose that someone has autism, especially when they have lived most of their lives without a diagnosis. In most cases, diagnoses are meant to serve as explanations for particular behaviors that may have been overlooked or attributed to other difficulties earlier in life. The Asperger’s Association of New England suggests that, when telling a person that he or she may have autism, it is best to lead with positive behavioral traits then follow with traits that could be attributed to autism. They explain that a person may respond with denial, relief, or anger, but, in most cases, recognizing the characteristics of autism can provide affected individuals with a new level of self-awareness. If you suspect that you or someone you know has autism, look out for these traits and contact your doctor for more information:

  • Anxiety in social situations
  • Trouble empathizing
  • Difficulty understanding body language, gestures, facial expressions, social innuendos
  • Trouble forming and maintaining relationships
  • Difficulty making conversation (particularly chatting, making small talk)
  • Trouble understanding or practicing socially appropriate behaviors
  • Trouble understanding double meanings
  • Anxiety in group settings
  • Tendency to interpret information too literally
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Restricted or unique interests (such as obsessions with dictionaries or encyclopedia facts)
  • Obsession with rigid routines and sameness
  • Trouble making plans for the future

Sometimes, a person will establish a self-diagnosis of autism based on independent research and self-observations. However, a medical diagnosis is required to be eligible for government support resources for adults with disabilities. Additionally, an official diagnosis can lead to insights about behavioral strengths and weaknesses, which can help individuals plan for the future. To acquire an official diagnosis, ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist.

Resources for Adults and Adolescents

There are various resources available for adults with autism. Relevant resources can vary depending on severity of autism spectrum disorder. If you are looking for resources to help a child transition to adulthood, visit our page "Transitioning into Adulthood". 

It is common for adults with autism to face difficulties regarding employment and housing. In order to help an adult with autism find comfort and success in each of these realms, it is important to address his or her strengths, weaknesses, and needs to determine what settings he or she will flourish in.

In terms of employment, many adults with autism are well suited for jobs that are well-structured and predictable. Additionally, they tend to succeed in jobs that do not have strict time limits or deadlines and that do not rely on planning ahead or conceptual thinking. Ideally, these jobs have quiet-environments (especially for individuals with sensory issues), clearly defined expectations, minimal interpersonal interaction, and supervisors who are willing to accommodate different working styles.

Whether adults with autism live independently, semi-independently, or dependently, services are available that can help them meet their needs. Adults with official diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder are eligible to apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Medicaid waivers, and accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These sources can help fund housing and acquire living assistance. Additionally, there are services available that connect adults with autism to living assistants, who can help them with daily needs such as personal care, meal preparation, and housekeeping. These programs can provide as much or as little assistance as an individual with autism may need.

For additional resources, check out Autism Speaks, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Asperger's Association of New England