5 Possible Autism Red Flags for Preschoolers

Autism spectrum disorder is a diagnosis that can affect each child differently, meaning there is not one specific trait that sets people with this diagnosis apart from others. Symptoms can rangeblog-autism-red-flags-main-landscape from mild to severe, but frequently symptoms such as problems with social interactions, difficulties with communication and repetitive/stereotypical behavior are seen with an autism diagnosis. Although symptoms vary from child to child, here is a list of 5 possible red flags of autism for preschoolers. Note: This list is not all-inclusive as symptoms vary between children.

1.) Limited Eye Contact and/or Want to be Alone

During preschool years (3-5 years old), children are exploring their environment and interacting with those around them. These interactions help them develop an understanding of the world, as well as develop important relationships with others. A red flag would be if a child has limited eye contact with peers and/or adults, especially when their name is called or during times of play/activities with others.

If a child tends to play alone, even though there are peers around to engage with, this could also be a red flag. These children could be engaging in a toy or activity with another peer nearby, but do not attempt to interact with the other peer even if the peer attempts to do so. At this age, children should start showing an interest in what their peers are doing and begin to interact with them both during organized (e.g., planned activities) and unstructured activities (e.g., free play).

2.) Delay in Speech and Language Skills and/or Repetitive Speech

Speech and language milestones are reached at different times for each child, but most, at this age, should be using four or more words in a sentence, follow three-step directions (e.g., find your chair, sit down, and wait for your friends), answer more complicated “WH” (e.g. who, what, where, etc.) questions and start to recognize letters and numbers. Red flags would be if they are unable to do the above, if familiar and/or unfamiliar people cannot understand what the child is saying and child does not ask or answer simple questions.

Repetitive speech could be defined as repeating the same words (eg., clap, clap, clap!) or phrases (e.g., How are you? How are you?) over and over which can also be known as echolalia. The repeated words might be said right away or at a later time. Most children do go through this stage, but repeating words or phrases should stop by the time they are 3.

3.) Become Upset with Minor Changes

Although many children can, at times, struggle with changes in routine, children with autism can become extremely upset when changes occur, especially unexpectedly. This may be seen during transition times between activities, clean up time, or when they are asked to do something. Some behaviors that may occur when changes in routine happen include exhibiting withdrawal, repetitive behaviors, tantrums, or even aggression.

4.) Stimming and/or Obsessive Interests

Stimming can be defined as stereotypy or self-stimulatory behavior, which can appear as repetitive body movements and/or repetitive movement of objects. Stimming can involve one or all senses, but some examples could be flapping their hands, rocking their body, spinning in circles or spinning objects. Obsessive interests could be routines or interests that the child develops that may seem unusual or unnecessary. Some example of common obsessive interests could include only wanting to talk about and play with computers, trains, historical dates or events, science, or particular TV shows, etc.

5.) Sensory Sensitivity

Children with autism may have a dysfunctional sensory system in which one or more of their senses are either over or under reactive to sensory stimulation. This sensitivity could be the cause of stimming behaviors exhibited. Some possible red flags that could be seen in preschoolers could be unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel. For example, during sensory play (e.g., sand, play-doh, shaving cream, etc.) a child that does not like to get their hands dirty and would prefer to continually wipe, wash them off or avoid sensory projects all together, could be a possible red flag.

NSPT offers services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview, Lake Bluff, Des Plaines, Hinsdale and Milwaukee! If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates!


Rachel Nitekman

Rachel Nitekman

Rachel is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with over 10 years of experience working with children with autism, Down syndrome, and other developmental delays. After graduating from the Blitstein Institute in 2011, she went on to receive her Masters in Psychology specializing in ABA, from Kaplan University, while working full time as a pediatric behavior therapist. Rachel has worked with children in a variety of settings, including home, camp and school. She also worked for KESHET, an organization that provides services for children and young adults with varying developmental delays. Rachel is passionate about her work in helping children succeed to their fullest potentials in life.

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