Clinical social worker: Early signs of autism and what parents should know

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent data, about one in 44 children from the U.S. have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Some people with ASD have a known difference, such as a genetic condition. Other causes are not yet known. Scientists believe there are multiple causes of ASD that act together to change the most common ways people develop. 

Early Signs of Autism

People with ASD may behave, communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different. There is often nothing about how they look that sets them apart. The abilities of people with ASD can vary significantly.

For example, some people with ASD may have advanced conversation skills whereas others may be nonverbal. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others can work and live with little to no support.

Signs of ASD often appear in early stages of life and will stay present throughout adulthood. It is key to intervene as soon as a diagnosis is suspected. The earlier an individual is evaluated and diagnosed, the sooner treatment services and resource support can be incorporated into developmental care. Below are common early indicators of Autism:

  • Rarely smiling at caregivers
  • Rarely mimicking sounds and movements of others
  • Minimal-to-no eye contact
  • Does not respond to his/her/their name
  • Repetitively stiffens arms, hands, and legs
  • Delays in developmental movements- rolling over, crawling, etc.

More About the Spectrum

There is no single kind of autism as it manifests in varying degrees from noncommunicative to highly functional. It is often referred to a “spectrum” to reflect this range of presenting symptoms. 

Think of this like the colors on a paint sample strip showing varying shades of the same color ranging from light to dark. At the “light” end of the paint strip or spectrum is the former diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder.

At the other end, the darker end, is the former Autistic Disorder diagnosis. The word “former” is used as we now include these and additional variations of Autism into one collective, encompassing diagnosis of ASD.

Seeking Support

Current treatments for ASD seek to reduce symptoms that interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. ASD affects each person differently, meaning that people with ASD have unique strengths and challenges and different treatment needs. Treatment plans usually involve multiple professionals and are catered to the individual.

If you suspect your child may have ASD, refer to your pediatrician immediately. The need for support will not lessen as autistic children transition to adulthood. Educational, behavioral, medical, and vocational services are just a few kinds of support that is available in your community and your pediatrician can help connect you with local resources.


Jackie Baker, LCSW, is a clinical social worker with UPMC Behavioral Health and sees patients at UPMC Williamsport Divine Providence Campus, 1100 Grampian Blvd., Williamsport. For more information, visit UPMC.com/BehavioralHealthNCPA.

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  • On the PULSE is an online media outlet in Northcentral, Pennsylvania. We specialize in in-depth journalism, human interest content and video features. Our mission is to build engagement in community through local news.

On the PULSE

On the PULSE is an online media outlet in Northcentral, Pennsylvania. We specialize in in-depth journalism, human interest content and video features. Our mission is to build engagement in community through local news.

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