Autism In A Three-Year-Old: Signs, Diagnosis, And Management

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Autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are developmental disorders that include various conditions affecting social interactions and behavioral skills in a child (1) (2). Autism in a 3-year-old could significantly impact the development of these skills. As per the World Health Organization reports, one in 160 children in the world has ASD (3). At the same time, based on the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, the estimated prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the US is approximately 1 in 36 children.

There is no single, well-known cause of autism, and it might occur due to various environmental and genetic factors. However, you may notice signs of this condition in your child by the age of two or three years. Although there is no known cure for autism, the condition can be effectively managed with techniques designed to enhance the quality of the child’s life.

Explore more about the symptoms, diagnosis, and management options for autism in a three-year-old.

In This Article

Signs And Symptoms Of Autism In A Three-year-old

Lack of social skills is a sign of autism in 3-year-old

Image: Shutterstock

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), babies could display early signs of autism before their first birthday (4). The more typical signs emerge before the age of two years or by three years. The signs and symptoms of autism usually present in three domains — social skills, communication skills, and behavior.

Lack of social skills is a common sign of an autistic child at age 3. You may notice the following shortcomings in social skills (5).

  • Doesn’t respond to name
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Does not share with others
  • Plays alone
  • Doesn’t take turns during activities
  • No interest in socializing or inclusion with others
  • Avoids physical contact with others
  • Inappropriate facial expressions or no expression at all
  • Not able to express feelings
  • Not empathetic
  • Difficult to soothe or comfort

Language and communication skills could be below the expected levels in three-year-olds with autism. You may notice the following issues (5).

  • Delayed language development and speech
  • Repeating words or phrases (Echolalia)
  • Inappropriate answers to questions
  • Repeats what others say
  • Does not point at objects of interest
  • Does not respond to others pointing to an object
  • No gestures or body movements, such as waving hands to say goodbye
  • Talks in a flat voice
  • Do not pretend play
  • Lack understanding of jokes or do not respond when teased
  • Reverses pronouns, such as saying “I” instead of “You”

Behavioral issues are common in three-year-olds with autism. You may notice the following behavioral attributes (5).

  • Line up toys or place objects in an organized way
A child with autism may exhibit behavioral issues

Image: IStock

  • Become upset, frustrated or has meltdowns if there is a small change in the structure of their daily routine
  • Stimming, i.e., making repetitive motions, such as spinning, flapping hands, or rocking back and forth
  • Play with a specific part of an object or a toy, such as spinning the wheels of a toy car repeatedly
  • May have odd routines, such as always wanting to shut the doors
  • Shows obsessive interests
  • Short attention span or a complete attention deficit
  • Hyperactivity
  • Aggression and anxiety
  • Self-harming, such as self-scratching or punching
  • Severe tantrums and depression
  • Lack of fear in situations where it is natural and expected
  • Irregular eating patterns and sleeping habits

James Guttman, a father of two, one of whom is non-verbal with autism, shares his observations of early symptoms in his son (with autism). He says, “I remember wincing as he would spin a toy on the ground and begin waving his hand above it. To relatives, friends, and outsiders, though, he was fine.”

He also emphasizes that his son’s participation in music classes was limited, “When the class would start, he would do very little in terms of participation. Kids half his size crawled over to strum the guitar while looking at their parents with a smile. My son would dart for the door or lay down on the floor with his hands cradling his head as if he was about to fall asleep (i).”

protip_icon Quick fact
Children with autism may be very sensitive or have no sensitivity to sounds, lights, smells, textures, and touch. They may look at objects from unusual angles (4).

Some of these symptoms may even occur in three-year-olds who do not have ASD. However, consult a pediatrician if your child shows any of these symptoms. Many of these signs and symptoms may also occur in other conditions, such as a developmental delay. Speech delay and lack of eye contact may need more prompt care to determine the presence of hearing or vision problems. 

Difference Between Autism Symptoms In Girls And Boys

Autism symptoms can be similar in both boys and girls. However, autism is often easily identified in boys due to their behavioral and playing habits. Girls may try to mimic the language and social skills of their surroundings. Thus, it may go unnoticed in girls for more time.

Boys can be more interested in spinning parts or wheels of a toy than girls. In comparison, girls tend to arrange objects, such as toys, in a specific way. Nevertheless, both boys and girls with autism show an obsession for keeping objects in a preferred way and may throw tantrums when the order is changed (6).

protip_icon Did you know?
Autism is diagnosed about four times more in boys than girls (6).

Difference Between Mild And Severe Symptoms Of Autism

Some children with ASD have advanced learning skills

Image: IStock

The severity of autism disorder may vary in each child from mild to severe. It means some children with ASD have advanced learning skills, whereas others may require assistance for daily activities.

Depending on the severity and the support required, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines three levels of autism (7).

SeveritySymptoms and signs
Level 1: Requiring support
  • Social interaction challenges
  • No interest in social activities
  • Difficult to initiate social interactions
  • Speech or language troubles
  • Hard to adapt to a new routine
  • Problems to make friends
  • Can manage independently
Level 2: Requiring substantial support
  • Problems adjusting to new surroundings or routine
  • Noticeable issues with nonverbal and verbal communication skills
  • Obvious behavioral problems
  • Repetitive behaviors interfering with everyday life
  • Reduced skills to interact with others
  • Specific interests
  • Need daily support
Level 3: Requiring very substantial support
  • Impairment of verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Language and speech is limited
  • Limited interest in socialization
  • Extreme issues to cope with new routine or surroundings
  • Inability to focus
  • Obsessions and repetitive behavior
  • Fixed interest
  • Requires significant support for daily activities

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are treated based on the level of severity. Children with mild ASD (level 1) may have better treatment outcomes than severe (level 3) cases. 

Autism Diagnosis In Three-year-olds

There is no specific imaging or laboratory test to diagnose autism. Observation of behaviors and developmental skills can indicate the presence of ASD in three-year-old children. Medical tests to exclude hearing and vision problems are performed before confirming the diagnosis (8).

Doctors may play and interact with the toddlers to assess them and see if they have sensory processing issues, such as difficulty with sensory integration, which often causes sensory overload. Parents may also be asked to fill questionnaires regarding their child’s behaviors and skills. After the initial evaluation, a pediatrician may refer suspected cases to specialists for detailed examination.

Management Of Autism

There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder. Thankfully, there are several therapies and intervention techniques to manage autism. These management techniques can reduce symptoms and enhance the child’s abilities, thus making them perform daily activities with minimal difficulty.

The following are the various management therapies for ASD (9).

  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the method to teach speech, life skills, and language to the autistic child.
  • Behavioral management therapy helps reduce unwanted behaviors and reinforce good behaviors.
Autism in 3-year-old can be manged by behavioral management therapy

Image: Shutterstock

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps modify the thoughts to change the child’s mood or behavior.
  • School-based therapies are important for autistic children to learn about social interactions and activities.
  • Nutrition therapy is recommended for autistic children with digestive issues and nutritional deficiencies.
  • Joint attention therapy teaches the use of nonverbal communications, such as gaze and gestures to communicate.
  • Parent-mediated therapy involves interventions that parents can teach the child. Parents are trained by experts, and they should continue to train the child at home as recommended.
  • Social skills training aims to develop social skills in a structured manner.
Social skills training is vital for 3-year-olds with autism

Image: IStock

  • Occupational therapy (OT) helps children learn the skills required for performing daily activities.
  • Speech and language therapy helps deal with communication difficulties and expression.

protip_icon Quick fact
The CDC mentions herbal supplements, chiropractic care, mindfulness, animal therapy, arts therapy, or relaxation therapies as complementary and alternative therapies for children with autism (13).

Therapies are chosen based on each child’s specific requirement since disorders, such as ADHD, may overlap with ASD in some children. Early interventions during preschool or before are shown to have positive effects. Depending on the severity of ASD, doctors may suggest special education centers with visual aids and assistive technology for children with autism.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is high-functioning autism in 3-year-olds?

High-functioning autism is when your toddler might have problems with acquiring social skills needed for interacting with other children or/and has cognitive impairment, language development delays, and learning difficulties (10).

2. Do children with autism laugh?

Yes, children with autism laugh as other children do. However, research notes that they usually laugh as a response to a positive internal state rather than in social interactions. There is no difference in the duration of laughter from other children (11).

3. Do toddlers with autism have trouble eating?

Yes, toddlers with autism may avoid a specific category of foods such as vegetables or proteins. They may also exhibit serious behavioral issues when offered food that they dislike (12).

Lack of social skills, delayed language and communication skills, and behavioral difficulties are some early signs of autism in 3-year-olds. The severity of the condition varies among different children, with some requiring assistance in everyday tasks. However, early detection and intervention can help most children with autism learn the skills they need to manage their condition without affecting other aspects of their lives. Your child’s doctor may recommend a combination of behavior and psychotherapy, nutrition therapy, parent-mediated therapy, occupational therapy, and other treatments.

Infographic: How To Help Your Three-Year-Old Child With Suspected Autism Spectrum Disorders?

A three-year-old child may not have a confirmed diagnosis of autism other than concerning signs. However, early training and parenting strategies to handle their special needs could improve their quality of life. Check out the infographic to learn strategies to help a three-year-old with suspected autism.

ways to help your three year old child with suspected autism (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Get high-quality PDF version by clicking below.

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Download Infographic in PDF version

Key Pointers

  • Lack of social and communication skills and behavioral issues are common in children with autism.
  • Try therapies and intervention techniques and help your little one perform daily activities smoothly.
  • Understand the severity level to deal with the situation in a better and proper way.

Acquaint yourself with the initial indicators of autism through this enlightening video. Gain expertise in identifying these cues and understanding the steps toward assistance.

Personal Experience: Source


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

1. What Is Autism? Autism Speaks
2. What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?; CDC
3. Autism spectrum disorders; WHO
4. What are the Early Signs of Autism?; American Academy of Pediatrics
5. Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders; CDC
6. Signs of Autism In Different Age Groups and Genders; Otsimo
7. Rami Grossmann, What is ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)?; ChildBrain
8. Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children; University of Rochester
9. Autism Spectrum Disorder Basics; Child Mind Institute
10. Advice for Parents; Evidence-based Treatment During Early Intervention; Autism Research Institute.
11. William J. Hudenko; Laughter Differs in Children with Autism: An Acoustic Analysis of Laughs Produced by Children With and Without the Disorder; Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
12. Eating habits—when to worry; Marcus Autism Center
13. Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder; CDC

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