Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can cause a wide range of symptoms, and there are many different ways those symptoms can be grouped.

It is useful for parents to know the signs and symptoms of autism and Asperger syndrome that are related to their child’s stages of development.

See your GP if you notice any of the symptoms of ASD or if you’re concerned about your child’s development. You can discuss your concerns together in depth before deciding whether your child should be referred for a specialist assessment.

Read more about diagnosing autism spectrum disorder.

Signs of ASD in pre-school children

The features of ASD that often develop in pre-school children are explained below.

Spoken language

  • delayed speech development (for example, not speaking at least 10 different words by the age of two), or not speaking at all
  • frequent repetition of set words and phrases
  • speech that sounds very monotonous or flat
  • preferring to communicate using single words, despite being able to speak in sentences

Responding to others

  • not responding to their name being called, despite having normal hearing
  • rejecting cuddles initiated by a parent or carer (although they may initiate cuddles themselves)
  • reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else

Interacting with others

  • not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space
  • little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age
  • not enjoying situations that most children their age like, such as birthday parties
  • preferring to play alone, rather than asking others to play with them
  • rarely using gestures (such as pointing) or facial expressions when communicating
  • avoiding eye contact

Behaviour

  • having repetitive movements such as flapping their hands, rocking back and forth or flicking their fingers
  • playing with toys in a repetitive and unimaginative way, such as lining blocks up in order of size or colour, rather than using them to build something
  • preferring to have a familiar routine, and getting extremely upset if there are changes to their normal routine
  • having a strong like or dislike of certain foods, based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste

Signs and symptoms of ASD in school-age children

Features of ASD that can develop in older children and teenagers are explained below.

Spoken language

  • preferring to avoid using spoken language
  • speech that sounds very monotonous or flat
  • speaking in pre-learned phrases, rather than putting together individual words to form new sentences
  • seeming to talk ‘at’ people, rather than sharing a two-way conversation

Responding to others

  • taking people’s speech literally and being unable to understand sarcasm, metaphors or figures of speech
  • reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else

Interacting with others

  • not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space
  • little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age, or having few close friends despite attempts to form friendships
  • not understanding how people normally interact socially, such as greeting people or wishing them farewell
  • being unable to adapt the tone and content of their speech to different social situations, for example speaking very formally at a party and then speaking to total strangers in a familiar way
  • not enjoying situations and activities that most children their age like
  • rarely using gestures or facial expressions when communicating
  • avoiding eye contact

Behaviour

  • having repetitive movements such as flapping their fingers, rocking back and forth or flicking their fingers
  • playing in a repetitive and unimaginative way, often preferring to play with objects rather than people
  • developing a highly specific interest in a particular subject or activity
  • preferring to have a familiar routine, and getting extremely upset if there are changes to their normal routine
  • having a strong like or dislike of certain foods, based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste 



Autism: social situations

Autism is a developmental disorder affecting the way people interact with the world. This film enacts how someone with autism can struggle to understand the rules of conversation, making social situations difficult.

Media last reviewed: 06/11/2013

Next review due: 06/11/2015

Other conditions associated with ASD

It is common for people with ASD to have symptoms or aspects of other conditions such as:

If your child has any of these problems, they may require separate treatment, such as medication or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), in addition to their treatment for ASD.

Read more about treating autism spectrum disorder.

Page last reviewed: 18/12/2013

Next review due: 18/12/2015