Although there are no “absolute” clinical indicators of autism, some of the early “red flags” include: • Does not smile by the age of six months • Does not respond to his or her name • Does not cry • Does not babble or use gestures by 12 months and • Does not point to objects by 12 months. Children with autism typically experience delays in speech and communication skills. Not only will they often develop spoken language later, but they are less likely to develop non-verbal communication skills such as “joint attention,” pointing, or gesturing.
Children seek to share attention with others spontaneously during the first year of life. “Joint attention” is an early-developing social-communicative skill in which two people (usually a young child and an adult) use gestures and gaze to share attention with respect to interesting objects or events. Before infants have developed social cognition and language, they communicate and learn new information by following the gaze of others and by using their own eye contact and gestures to show or direct the attention of the people around them. Impairment in joint attention is considered an important “red flag” of autism.
Researchers in Melbourne Australia, working on a long-term study of 1900 eight month old children, found that those with autism used fewer gestures to communicate than other kids. Speech pathologist Carly Veness, who led the research, said there was a pattern of low gesture use among autistic children between the ages of eight months and two years. "We found that there was a decreased use of gestures like pointing, showing and giving,” she commented. Children who were diagnosed with autism by age seven were compared with others who had language and developmental problems as well as those who had typical communication skills. Examining the data over the seven-year period, researchers found that the children with autism produced fewer communicative gestures at age two compared to other children. Some of these children had also demonstrated problems with their hand gestures as early as eight months. Future research is needed to determine how well the low use of gestures is at predicting a diagnosis of autism and whether certain gestures differentiate typical children from those with the disorder.