14 Signs of Autism in 3-Year-Olds & When to Seek Assessment

Despite the different ways that it can look in people, there are some common signs of autism that can be found in many cases. Common signs include challenges in social interactions, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors, although the intensity and combination of these traits can vary from one child to another. Recognizing these signs in young children can be the first step in determining whether to seek an assessment for autism. It is important to note that each child is unique and that a child showing some of these signs does not necessarily confirm an autism diagnosis will be made.

These symptoms should be considered as basic guidelines to help parents in making informed decisions about their child’s developmental needs. Knowing these early autism symptoms can aid parents in providing the best support for their child’s development.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that looks different in all who are diagnosed. It varies widely among individuals and can be diagnosed at any time (although most diagnoses occur in early childhood). Some children with autism might excel in school or show intense focus in certain activities or areas, while others may have higher support needs and require more intensive intervention. It is incredibly helpful for parents to recognize the strengths and needs that are unique to their child with autism.

Early Signs of Autism in 3-Year-Olds

Here are some specific behaviors in your child that might suggest that an autism assessment could be worthwhile:

Behavioral Signs

Sensory Sensitivity

Children with autism often have strong reactions to things like touch, sound, light, and smell. They may be extremely sensitive to loud noises or textures of objects or foods that don’t seem to bother the general population. If a child covers their ears or avoids physical contact, they may be sensitive to sensory experiences. Children with autism may also be much less reactive than others when feeling pain or pressure.

Repetitive Behaviors

Children with ASD may also engage in repetitive movements such as hand-flapping, spinning, or rocking. These are commonly known as self-stimulatory behaviors. Children on the spectrum may also insist on following very specific routines in their daily lives and could become extremely distressed when those routines change.

Fixed, Repetitive Play

Similarly to repetitive behaviors, young children with autism may also carry over some of these patterns into play. Rather than traditionally interacting with toys or engaging in make-believe play, they may play by lining toys or other objects up or repeating the same action multiple times with them. It is also possible that play only involves one particular toy or activity.

Social and Emotional Signs

Signs of autism in 3-year-olds can vary

Limited Eye Contact

Many children with autism tend to make limited eye contact during interactions, even if they are engaged in the conversation and paying attention. They might not look at others in the eyes as often as neurotypical children do. They might not orient themselves towards someone speaking or respond by looking when they hear their name.

Difficulty Making Friends

Children with autism also often face challenges when it comes to making friends. They may struggle with initiating social interactions or maintaining friendships. Children on the spectrum may have a hard time approaching other children to play. For many others, the prefer to be alone and do not like to share toys or engage with peers.

Difficulty Understanding Social Cues

Understanding social cues can be tricky for children with autism. They might have a hard time recognizing facial expressions, body language, or subtle social signals that convey emotions or intentions. They are also less likely to express themselves through body language or facial expressions.

Difficulty Understanding or Expressing Emotion

Understanding and expressing emotion may not come easy to individuals with autism. They often have difficulty identifying their feelings. They also may struggle to interpret the emotions of others.

Intense Tantrums or Meltdowns

While most children will occasionally have tantrums or meltdowns, children with autism often experience them more intensely and frequently. They may also engage in more problematic behaviors, such as aggression and self-injurious behaviors. These meltdowns may occur more frequently when they face sensory overload, changes in routine, or when they struggle to communicate.

Intense Interests

Children with autism may also have an obsessive interest in specific subjects. They may be deeply passionate about a particular hobby, subject, or object, and they can spend a significant amount of time and energy focused on it. The interest may also be their preferred conversation topic and show little interest in talking about topics.

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Communication Challenges

Delayed speech

Delayed speech is common among children with autism. They may start speaking later than their peers or have difficulty developing their language skills. It is important to note that all children develop at their own pace and some develop speech skills later than others. It is important to remember that it is possible for a child to have a language delay that is unrelated to autism spectrum disorder.

Difficulty with Social Interaction

Children with autism often face challenges when it comes to social interactions. They may struggle with conversations, reading social gestures of cues, or engaging in back-and-forth exchanges. They may avoid social attention or avoid social situations altogether. Children on the spectrum may also struggle to understand jokes or common idioms.


Echolalia is the repeating of words or phrases that are heard. Repeating words or phrases is a behavior that is frequently seen in children with autism. They may also say the word or phrases multiple times in a row, and say them often over a period of time.


Similar to echolalia, scripting occurs when a child with ASD repetitively recites lines or passages from movies, books, songs, or other media. They may engage in scripting while having conversations with others or while playing. The scripts may or may not have relevance to what is going on in their environment at the time. For example, they may script from their favorite video when they are upset and crying.

Difficulty in Using Gestures

Children with autism may have difficulty using gestures to communicate. They might not naturally point, wave, or use other non-verbal cues that are regularly used by others. It is also possible that they don’t respond when others use gestures. For example, they may not follow a point when someone else is pointing at an object.

When to Seek Help

Seeking help and early intervention for autism as early as possible can improve a child’s development significantly. If a child engages in many of the early signs of autism described above, it may be a good idea to consult with a pediatrician or child psychologist as soon as possible.

While engaging in these behaviors may not necessarily lead to an autism diagnosis, an earlier diagnosis can mean earlier treatment. Early intervention programs can provide targeted support and therapies such as ABA, CBT, Speech, or OT to develop their social, communication, and cognitive skills.

Diagnosis and Assessment


There are a few steps that occur before a child undergoes an autism assessment. Typically, during regular check-ups, a pediatrician will conduct developmental screenings. These screenings can help to catch any potential issues early. If there are any concerns, referrals are made to specialists (e.g., child psychologists or developmental pediatricians) for a more thorough evaluation.

Specialists usually complete a comprehensive assessment. They complete a series of assessments that help to look at a child’s developmental milestones, social skills, and communication skills. They typically complete an observation, talk to caregivers, and use standardized tests to look at various skills, milestones, and behaviors. They may also look at medical history and do physical exams to rule out any other medical conditions.

A formal diagnosis of autism is typically made based on criteria outlined in a manual used for diagnosing mental disorders called the DSM-V. This diagnosis can be made by either developmental pediatricians, psychiatrists, or psychologists with certification as a Health Service Provider in Psychology (HSPP).

Parental Guidance and Support

Supporting a child with autism spectrum disorder can be a journey filled with love, challenges, and learning. For parents, one of the most important things to remember is that they are not alone. They should start by seeking advice from professionals, such as child psychologists or Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs). These experts can be trusted resources, and may also suggest effective therapies such as speech, occupational, or behavioral therapy.

Joining support groups for parents of children with ASD can provide to parents a source of comfort and wisdom. Sharing stories and tips with others who understand the journey can be incredibly uplifting and helpful. Parents are also encouraged to educate themselves about autism spectrum disorder. Reading books, searching through informative websites, and possibly even attending workshops can deepen their understanding of autism and teach them more ways to connect with their child.

Most importantly, parents should keep in mind that every child is unique. It is important for parents to celebrate their children’s strengths and always be there to guide them through their challenges. Creating a home filled with love and acceptance is essential to providing a safe space where the child can truly flourish. With patience, understanding, and support, parents can help their child navigate their world with confidence.


Early identification of ASD is the key to providing children with the best opportunity for a successful future. When parents and caregivers recognize the signs and seek help early, the likelihood of greater outcomes multiplied. This can make families better equipped to support their child and get the expert help needed as soon as possible.

The right kind of support and therapies can open up a world of possibilities, helping these children lead happy and fulfilling lives. With a good dose of patience, a deep understanding, and the right resources, these children can shine in their own unique ways. Every child has much to offer to the world and those around them, and may one day make significant differences in their communities and the broader world.

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