The signs of autism at age 2 are subtle, but not if you know what you’re looking for. Read on to learn about signs of autism in toddlers at two years old.
- Early signs of autism in toddlers
- Frequently asked questions about early signs of autism at age 2
- Resources about Autism for Parents
Early signs of autism in toddlers
Here are traits of autism in two-year-olds to be on the lookout for so you can empathize with your child sooner.
Interacting with parents and other people
Make sure to rule out hearing loss, a processing disorder, or Deafness with your child’s pediatrician.
Autistic traits in 2-year-olds when interacting with other people include:
- Avoids eye contact: little to no eye contact when someone is speaking, or they are speaking to you (autistic people don’t avoid eye contact; they simply don’t make it)
- Atypical communication: limited or no speech, gestures and sounds
- Asocial: little attention-seeking behavior, like pointing to objects and events, or seeking approval for drawings and block-building; prefers solitary activities; interrupts other people when talking
- Doesn’t respond to social cues: for example, little response to parent’s smile or other facial expressions and body language or just doesn’t respond to their name; you might be saying their name multiple times before they acknowledge you
- Requires routine: behaves better with routine; for example, melting down when up past bedtime or struggling with weekends/holidays/back to school time
- Quietly approaches people: doesn’t say anything
- Favorite or preferred people: Autistics gravitate towards people they feel safe or comfortable around, or people they just know better. Autistic toddlers might prefer to sit in your lap at family gatherings or the park until they feel comfortable and confident enough to explore
Autistic toddler playtime
- doesn’t care about playing with other children, or awkwardly approaches other kids; they might stand near other children and wait to be asked to play or jump into playing by trying to take another child’s toy; this may lead to hitting
- prefers to play alone, or engage in parallel play — for example, playing in the kitchen while you cook dinner; they might also be reluctant to watch TV if no one else is nearby (this is a neurodivergent love language and a sign your child feels lonely)
- plays with toys differently, by lining them up or sorting colors — for example, they may prefer to organize their toys into buckets, categories or rows of shapes, sizes or colors
- Lack of pretend play: For example, preferring to play with real food and toys instead of fake ones (Montessori’s take on the play kitchen might be more enriching young autistic kids!)
Early toddler behavior on the autism spectrum
- stimming, e.g. flapping hands, finger flicking, pacing back and forth, rocking or swaying
- struggles to follow where you’re pointing
- special interests that mimic obsessions, not to be confused with hobbies
- unusual visual fixations
Everyone engages in self-stimulatory behavior, but autistic people stim on a regular basis. In two-year-olds, this may look like:
- flapping hands
- flicking fingers
- pacing back and forth
- rocking or swaying
- chewing on certain toys or fabrics
- smelling certain items repeatedly
- playing with hair
- going out of their way to stare at specific objects (visual stimming)
Click here for more ways autistic toddlers stim.
When performed on a regular, repeated basis, stimming may be an early sign of autism. Most stimming behaviors are harmless, but dangerous behaviors should be replaced with safer stims.
If your child is banging their head, that is communicative behavior.
However, if your toddler is smelling everyone’s seats after they stand up, give them a wax melt or candle they really like to replace their awkward, inappropriate sensory need. Growing up to learn you did this as a child while everyone else laughed, judged and stared at you is traumatizing.
Special interests are not to be confused with hobbies
Unlike hobbies, autistic special interests are obsessive fascinations.
Your toddler’s obsession with the Frozen franchise is not a good comparison. A child’s identity doesn’t stabilize until age nine.
Autistic special interests in toddlers will look more like:
- having a favorite or preferred person to be around out of everyone else they see the most
- needing one specific cup, plate, bowl, etc. to eat with
- repeatedly playing with one specific toy
Frequently asked questions about early signs of autism at age 2
Autism spectrum disorder tests and quizzes will give you an idea of whether your two-year-old is autistic. Reading the stories and watching videos of actually autistic people on social media will provide you with greater insight into the life of autistic people that you won’t find reading medical journals.
Are you considered about behaviors with your toddler? Share about it in the comments below.