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When it comes to looking for the initial signs of autism in children, we often look for the developmental delays first. And this makes sense, right? Autism, after all, is a developmental disorder.

But, what else are we looking for?

What else should parents be concerned about?

With my daughter, she had a regression in speech. 

Other signs to look for include delays in social skills or social signs of autism. 

Delayed Social Signs of Autism

In addition to some of the other red flags such as speech regression, here are a few of the social signs of autism:

  • Lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with others
  • Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • Preference to play alone or not appropriately (ex. playing side-by-side instead of with another peer)
  • Marked impairments in eye-to-eye gaze 
  • Lack of emotional or social reciprocity
  • Lack of understanding back-and-forth communication

This will look different, of course, depending on the age of the child. A toddler, for example, is still very concerned about themselves. The world, in their eyes, does truly revolve around them. 

And this is through no fault of their own.

Toddlers are just being toddlers until they gain the developmental growth. And for some children, this may take longer. With some children, they just may very well be toddlers on the autism spectrum.

But, if your child is experiencing or displaying those delayed social signs longer than necessary; it may become a cause for concern. You might want to track these things or at least make note of them so you can bring it up with your child’s pediatrician or with your child’s teacher at school. 

Bringing these concerns to the attention of professionals is crucial, especially as these behaviors may become more evident in educational settings. When not identified at early stages, the nuances of the spectrum can profoundly impact educational processes, potentially leading to further isolation. Thus, how does autism affect children’s learning is a question the answer to which is essential for adapting teaching methods and social interactions to support their unique needs, fostering a more inclusive and understanding environment.

Is my child just shy or is it a social delay?

Children who are shy are hypervigilant about their environment and are constantly scanning the environment. This is not to avoid eye contact with others, but because they want to be aware of what’s going on around them at all times. They will, however, look up to their caregiver and/or hover around their caregiver.

Shy children are shy in some environments or with some people. 

Children with autism, on the other hand, may not be as hyperaware of their environment and may not look to their caregiver for social cues. They may, however, be particularly clingy. This was the case with my daughter for much of her childhood. I was her safe space. 

Children who are shy:

  • Are quiet and withdrawn in new settings
  • Slow to develop friends and play with others
  • Tend to look away from others
  • Take longer to become comfortable in group settings

However, after they have been given time to “warm-up” to the environment and/or people, shy children will generally come around.

Is it selective mutism or is it autism?

Selective mutism is a severe type of anxiety. And it happens when a child who has the ability to speak, suddenly stops speaking. Most often in school or another social setting. 

This type of anxiety is most common in children under the age of 5, which is also typically when separation anxiety starts to peak. The causes of selective mutism are unknown, but we do know that it is a type of childhood anxiety. They do not initiate speech or respond when spoken to by others in social settings.

There are, however, a few triggers that may lead to selective mutism:

  • Temperament (shyness, social isolation, social anxiety)
  • Potentially have receptive language difficulties 
  • Genetics

In some children, there may be a family history of selective mutism, extreme shyness, or other anxiety disorders. 

And it should be noted that selective mutism is not the same as mutism. Children with selective mutism can understand and speak, but they are unable to speak in certain settings, situations, or environments. Children with mutism, on the other hand, will never speak.

Signs of selective mutism include:

  • Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations
  • Interferes with educational achievement or with social communication
  • Lasts at least one month (but not including the child’s first month of school)
  • Failure to speak is not due to a lack of knowledge with the spoken language

Because selective mutism is an anxiety disorder, it can also be expected that the child will have additional anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, or specific phobias. 

Selective mutism should not be confused with shyness and it is not an intentional refusal to speak. 

And, we also need to remember that anxiety often coexists or is comorbid with autism.

From an autistic autism mom to you

The Autism Family Guide is your shortcut to autism parenting.

How do I know?

Because friend, the resources in this guide are lifechanging.

Create routines with ease, calming strategies at your fingertips, and more.

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Digital Product Creator at Kori at Home
Kori is a late diagnosed autistic/ADHD mom. She is currently located in Albany, NY where she is raising a neurodiverse family. Her older daughter is non-speaking autistic (and also has ADHD and Anxiety) and her youngest daughter is HSP/Gifted. A blogger, podcaster, writer, product creator, and coach; Kori shares autism family life- the highs, lows, messy, and real. Kori brings her own life experiences as an autistic woman combined with her adventures in momming to bring you the day-to-day of her life at home. Kori is on a mission to empower moms of autistic children to make informed parenting decisions with confidence and conviction.

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