How to Recognize a Child with Autism

How to tell naughty behavior from autism

Tantrum at the supermarket
Supermarket Boy. Getty Images

All children make loud noises, act impulsively, and run or climb when they shouldn't. They may be unusually picky eaters, refuse to wear certain clothes or have a tough time falling and staying asleep.  They may bang doors, flush toilets unnecessarily, run out of the house naked, or whack their siblings.  

All of these behaviors are socially unacceptable. And none of them are unique to children with autism. In fact, most adults, seeing a child over the age of infancy behave in these ways, assume that they are watching a child who has been "spoiled rotten"—that is, a child who is rewarded for behaving badly by parents who are unwilling to say "no." 

Sometimes, though, the child in question is not a spoiled brat: he's autistic. And because of his autism, he is prone to odd behaviors. He may be inattentive, distracted, or even throw very loud, long-lasting tantrums sometimes called " meltdowns." Autistic children are not misbehaving, nor are they responding (in most cases) to lack of discipline. Instead, they are reacting to sensory challenges, frustrations, or other issues that may be difficult for casual observers to recognize.

It's Not Always Easy to Spot Autism

There are no consistent physical or behavioral signs of autism. As a result, it can be hard to spot an autistic child with a casual glance. In fact, there are really only two situations in which a casual observer will immediately know when they are seeing autistic behaviors rather than ordinary naughtiness.

The first such situation involves a child whose non-verbal articulations and physical presentation are so unusual that they are obviously autistic. This would include, for example, a teenager who is using guttural sounds instead of speech to communicate, or a child who is rocking and flapping his hands. These behaviors are extreme enough to send the message "this is a person with special needs."

The second such situation, not surprisingly, is when the adult has (or works with) a child on the autism spectrum. Professionals in the field can usually pick up on relatively subtle behaviors and verbal cues that wouldn't be obvious to the average person. Autism parents, as a result of being around many people on the spectrum in doctors' offices, therapy groups, and special education classrooms, know the signs of autism like the back of their hands.

Tips for Recognizing the Signs of Autism

Increasingly, adults with no knowledge of or experience with autism are ask to interact with children on the autism spectrum. Coaches, camp counselors, Scout leaders, swim instructors, and museum docents (among others) are more and more likely to have autistic children included in their programs or activities. In some cases, parents reveal their child's diagnosis ahead of time, along with hints and tips for helping their child succeed. All too often, however, no information is provided ahead of time, and it's up to the adult in charge to figure things out.

While you won't be able to diagnose an autistic child on the fly with no experience or training, it may be possible for you to determine whether the child you are observing or interacting with has signs of autism. In some cases, you may be able to help the child by making small changes to accommodate his needs. In other cases, it's quite possible that a child is both autistic and spoiled rotten, making your position fairly complex!

Here are a few clues to help you determine whether the child you're working with or observing needs discipline or accommodations. Keep an eye out, in particular, for girls whose behavior is surprising; it's often the case that girls with autism are underdiagnosed.

  1. The behavior seems to occur out of the blue. While typical kids might act out as a reaction to being denied what they want or annoyed by a peer, kids with autism are more likely to act our as a result of sensory challenges (too much light, sound, heat; uncomfortable clothing; strange smells) that may be almost "invisible" to the rest of us.
  2. The behavior is repetitive but isn't purposeful. A child who is opening and closing a door over and over again, perhaps positioning his eyes to watch the movement of the door, is unlikely to be doing so in order to be "naughty." She is probably enjoying the sensory experience and is oblivious to whether the behavior is appropriate.
  3. The behavior is age-inappropriate. When a bright 12-year-old can't stop blurting out answers in class or insists on talking incessantly about "babyish" videos or characters, he is unlikely to be doing so just to drive classmates crazy. These are impulsive behaviors and age-inappropriate interests that are often associated with autism.
  1. The child isn't watching for a reaction. While typical kids will "act out" to get a reaction from peers or adults, children with autism "act out" for their own, internal reasons. If you see a child doing something that would typically be considered "naughty" (sitting under a desk, climbing onto a bench, running where they shouldn't), but they aren't interested in anyone's reaction to their behaviors, they may be exhibiting signs of autism.
  2. The child seems socially clueless. Children with autism may have a very tough time reading others' reactions, especially when they're subtle. As a result, they may inadvertently drive peers crazy by talking endlessly about a favorite topic, invading personal space, or assuming they are welcome when they're not.
  3. The child is unusually passive or relies on another child to speak for them. Children with autism, particularly girls, sometimes find it easiest to "disappear" in a group rather than assert their needs. In some cases, other members of the peer group will step up as caregivers, speaking for that child and helping to protect them from bullying.

    While none of these signs is absolute proof that a child is autistic, they are certainly signs that a child is not causing havoc for fun or to get their own way. Whether autistic or not, they are kids who need some extra help to manage the complexities of daily life!


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