13 Signs Of Autism In School-Age Children

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Medically reviewed by Kimberly Langdon, MD

How Can You Spot Autism In School Children

Anyone who is around children regularly has heard about the surge in diagnoses[1] of autism spectrum disorder. ASD is affecting more young people and their families every day. While children with autism spectrum disorder do face challenges, there are many ways we can help them. Spotting children with autism spectrum disorder is essential in getting them help as soon as possible.

A child may exhibit any one of these indicators and not be on the autism spectrum. Even adults do some of these things once in a while. When you see a few of these indicators together, however, it’s more likely that the child has autism spectrum disorder. If these behaviors go on for a while and repeat frequently, the probability goes up as well.

Indicators of Autism In Children

It’s possible to divide up the indicators of autism into a few categories, to make them a little easier to understand and look for. A child can be diagnosed with autism if they face difficulties with communication or in social situations, and exhibit repetitive behavior. 

It can also be helpful to look for specific indicators, specific behaviors that children perform regularly. Those indicators include[2]:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Seeking solitude
  • Difficulty discussing feelings, their own and others’
  • Say words or phrases repetitively, known as echolalia
  • Flap their hands, rock repetitively, or spin in circles
  • Have disproportionate or odd reactions to sounds, smells, taste, or other sense stimulation
  • Delay of speech and language skill development
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Poor understanding of personal space
  • Dislikes physical contact
  • Has difficulty with jokes and sarcasm
  • Doesn’t play pretend
  • Doesn’t wave goodbye or use other gestures

Difficulty with Communication

Kids have a hard time communicating. Anyone who has had an enthusiastic conversation with a seven-year-old can tell you that. They learn the basics of how to get along with others from their families, friends, and playmates. When they get old enough to enter school, however, they face social challenges of a whole different type.

All of which is to say, it’s not strange to see a child avoid eye contact. Younger kids may be more prone to waving their arms and jumping around. All of these things are on the list of indicators up there. Children with autism spectrum disorder face more severe social challenges[3], however.

There are a couple of key points to keep in mind when trying to spot autism spectrum disorder in school children. These are two things that a medical professional will look for before making a true diagnosis, so it can be helpful to understand what they are looking for. Those two things are:

Behavior persisting over a period of time

 As we’ve discussed, any kid might be shy when meeting new people. Burning off some excess energy by spinning until they are dizzy is not exactly a rare thing for kids to do, either. The behavior that indicates autism is going to continue over a period of time, however.

We mean that in two ways. First, one ‘session’ might last for a noticeably long time, longer than if they were just being goofy. Alternatively, the behavior may pop up recurrently. For example, when a child flaps their arms frequently over a short period of time.

Persisting behavior also means that it will happen again and again over a longer period. If every time you see a child for a week or a month they flap their hands or rock repetitively, that might be an indicator.

Behavior that interferes with the basics of life

At the most basic level, the ‘disorder’ part of autism spectrum disorder means that it’s a condition that makes life difficult. Children might be shy at first meeting and have a hard time playing together. 

If a child starts having a genuinely difficult time communicating, that can have a long-lasting impact on their life. 

Repetitive Behavior

We’ve talked a lot about behavior that reoccurs frequently. Repetitive behavior[4] actually is referring to specific types of behaviors, however. It can be the sort of thing that we jokingly refer to as ‘being a bit OCD”, such as lining things up in a specific way. It can also be things like playing with a specific toy and no other. They may need to stick to a routine to feel comfortable.

They might also form something called ‘repetitive interests’. That is a focus on one or a few topics, to the exclusion of anything else. With these, you’ll also want to follow the two guidelines above, looking for behavior that persists and that interferes with life.

Other symptoms

Difficulties communicating and repetitive behavior are both what define the autism spectrum disorder. However, there is a range of other things to look[5] for that can also point to autism spectrum disorder. They can also point to other conditions, like ADHD. 

Some of them are also the result of frustrations children on the autism spectrum experience. It’s not uncommon for them to experience both anxiety and depression. Other indicators are common to children on the autism spectrum disorder for reasons we don’t yet understand.

These sort of symptoms can include:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Short attention span
  • Aggression and tantrums
  • Impulsivity
  • Self-injury
  • Disproportionate fear response (too much fear or too little fear)
  • Other unusual emotional reactions
  • Odd sleep habits
  • Odd eating habits

Some of those symptoms, for example, self-injury and disproportionate fear response, are big red flags. In most cases, contacting a medical professional is the next step.

How to Share Your Concerns About Autism With A Parent

There is a child in your life that has exhibited some of the behaviors we’ve discussed and you quite naturally want to help. The person best placed to help that child is their parent, however, so your first step should be to share your concern with a parent[6]

That may be a daunting prospect, since it does mean telling a parent their child will face additional challenges. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but the most important thing is helping the child with autism spectrum disorder.

There are a few things to keep in mind when sharing your concerns about autism. A few guidelines can help you plan a difficult conversation and be prepared for the inevitable questions.

Do some research

You’re reading this, so you’re already on the right track. It’s important to know what you’re talking about. Make sure to check your facts and try to have some specific examples. 

Prepare a plan  

Giving them some sort of road map[7] to follow can be important, even if they don’t necessarily follow it. A medical professional needs to be consulted and there are a few tests to be done. A child with autism spectrum disorder needs some support from their family. Their family may need some support from you.

Keep it light and positive

It’s definitely going to be a big deal if you make it a big deal. While it’s true that a child with autism spectrum disorder will face challenges, there is a lot more help out there as more kids are diagnosed. 

Be sensitive

By the same token, it can be upsetting to be told your child has autism spectrum disorder. Support can also mean sympathy and understanding, as well as offering a helping hand.

Know when to stop

It’s impossible to guess what reaction a parent might have. It’s likely they will be upset[8]. They might even get angry. Try not to take it personally. There also may come a point when more discussion is no longer helpful. At that point, it may be best just to take a step back.

The possibilities for helping children with autism spectrum disorder are growing every day. The sooner they can receive the benefits of that help, the less they may struggle throughout the rest of their life. Spotting a child with autism spectrum disorder is the first step in helping them be a happier and more fulfilled person.

Medically reviewed by:

Kimberly Langdon

Sean Newton has nearly ten years of experience as a health and fitness writer, focusing on diet and its effects on your health. He also is an avid athlete and martial artist, specializing in bodyweight exercises and movement training. Together with an evidence-based approach to good health, his goal is to lay out the facts for readers, so they can make informed choices.

Medically reviewed by:

Kimberly Langdon

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