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A delay in speech and language skills can be one of the red flags for an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but how can you tell whether your child is simply a late talker or if they’re showing signs of ASD?

Early Indicators of ASD

There are a number of signs which can be indicative of ASD that aren’t typically present in a speech and language delay. Early signs of ASD can usually be observed in the first two years of life and can include some or all of the following. 

Lack of Eye-Contact

Young children typically look at others to share their enjoyment, share attention and to request. Children with ASD usually have reduced eye-contact with others. They may not look at the other person when requesting, for example, when they  say a word or when they show someone what they want. Children with ASD can be more object-focused than person-focused. This may be noticeable during play when their attention and eye-gaze may be on the toys rather than the person who is playing with them.  

Minimal use of Gestures

Children with speech and language delays will still typically use non-verbal skills to communicate even though they may not be able to use many words. These non-verbal skills include gestures such as pointing, nodding and shaking their head and waving goodbye. Young children with ASD tend to use minimal gestures to communicate. They may not use gestures such as pointing to show things of interest or shaking their head when they don’t want something. 

Preference for solitary play

Young children with ASD may prefer to play by themselves rather than playing with others. They may also play with toys in unusual ways at times, for example, lining up objects rather than playing conventionally with them or focussing on the smaller details of a toy (for example, the wheels of a car) rather than playing with the whole toy.


Children with ASD may engage in echolalia which is the repeating of others’ words or phrases. Echolalia can be immediate (repeating something that someone has just said) or delayed (repeating something at a later time). The child might repeat the  words/phrases of someone familiar such as a parent or someone unfamiliar such as from a TV program or something from a YouTube video.   

Other early signs of ASD can include sensory sensitivities, repetitive behaviours, a lack of shared enjoyment and not responding when their name is called.

Further Information & Next Steps

For further information about the early signs of autism, the Raising Children website is a great resource with lots of information about developmental norms and ASD including videos from parents of children with ASD. Additionally, the ASDetect app is a free app from the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre that empowers parents and caregivers to assess the social attention and communication behaviours of their children aged 2½ and younger to help detect ASD. 

If you have any concerns about your child’s development, please seek advice from your existing health professional. You can also contact us on 03 7012 5038 for advice and information about the early signs of autism and about our assessment and intervention services. 

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