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How to detect autism spectrum disorder in toddlers

autism spectrum disorder

Because autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses are growing so rapidly, educating ourselves about the disorder can help us better understand the children and adults who have been identified as being on the spectrum.

Knowing early indicators of ASD can help parents who might be concerned about their infant or toddler’s development, says Julie Liming, LSCSW, Via Christi Adolescent Behavioral Health Social Worker. Some early indicators include:

  • No big smiles or warm expressions from a baby by age 6 months
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or facial expressions by 9 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age
  • No response to name
  • Poor eye contact
  • Excessive lining up of toys or other objects
  • Doesn’t bring objects of interest to show caregiver
  • Plays with parts of toys instead of the whole toy

It’s important to recognize that many of these indicators can also be due to other conditions, so testing and evaluation is critical.

Evaluation and testing

“Testing may include neurological assessment, cognitive testing, language testing and a hearing test," says Liming. “Unfortunately, there’s not a single medical test or a blood test that can identify ASD.”

Physicians and psychologists use behavioral evaluations along with the neurological, cognitive and language testing to diagnose ASD. Some early indicators could be due to hearing loss, so a hearing test can help rule out ASD.


There is no cure for ASD, and there is no one medicine that can treat ASD, but many of its symptoms can be treated. Treatments include behavioral, medical or both, says Liming, and the therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to address specific symptoms. Each individual’s treatments should be tailored specifically for them. 

Behavioral treatments should involve the entire family and are intended to address learning and behavior skills. They may include the following methods:

  • Floor time, which has caregivers and parents meet the child on their own level
  • Speech/language therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Social skills training
  • Training, therapy and support for the family

In addition to behavioral treatments, there may be medical treatments that can help treat the symptoms of ASD. These include:

  • Neurological treatments
  • Psychiatric treatments including medicines that treat:
    • Mood instability
    • Seizures
    • Impulsivity and hyperactivity
    • Irritability

Liming also recommends that if you have a child with ASD, that you take advantage of the help you can receive from the education system. Make sure you have an IEP or 504 plan in place that will help the child to have any necessary accommodations made to help them succeed.