Is your child showing signs of having severe autism? Don’t worry having a child with severe autism or low functioning can be challenging at times but it has taught me to look at life differently and to enjoy the little things.

Autism seems to be everywhere we look now. Whether someone has autism in your family or you have a friend with an autistic child, most of us have some idea about what autism is.

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact. Autism also impacts the nervous system. Autism does NOT have a cure but can be treated with therapy to help reduce the symptoms and give your child the tools to navigate the world better.

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Full disclosure – I am not a doctor or a healthcare professional. I am just a mom who has experience with autism in all three of my children as well as myself. Please talk with your child’s doctor if you believe they may have autism. These are just some important signs to look for and that you can list to your doctor if you have concerns.

The Three Levels of Autism

Autism level 1 or High Functioning Autism describes one with autism who requires less support. However, people with high-functioning autism have deficits in certain areas including communication, emotion, recognition, expression, and social interaction.

Another common name for high-functioning autism is mild autism or Asperger’s syndrome (named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger). Although the term Asperger’s syndrome is no longer used as an official diagnosis. Today, these people are diagnosed with either high-functioning autism or autism level 1.

Autism Level 2 or Medium Functioning Autism describes one with autism who requires substantial support. These individuals have a harder time masking and adapting compared to those who have autism level 1. They often engage in repetitive behaviors that are very noticeable not typical behavior.

Autism Level 3 or Low Functioning Autism (also known as severe autism) describes one with autism that requires very substantial support. These individuals often have more severe issues in speech, language, and social communication. Some people with level 3 or severe autism are completely non-verbal or have echolalia (repeating words or phrases they hear).

Signs of Severe Autism

While there are many overlapping signs of the levels of autism, the severity of the signs is what is used to identify which level that individual falls into. Here are 14 signs of severe autism that I have observed in my youngest son who has been diagnosed with severe or level 3 autism spectrum disorder.

1. Lack of Eye Contact

One of the first signs of autism that healthcare providers look for is the difficulty maintaining eye contact. Many children and adults with autism struggle with initiating and maintaining eye contact with others. They can also have difficulty looking at the camera while getting their picture taken. I have had a very hard time getting my boys to continue looking at the camera so I can get a good picture.

Although this is a common symptom of autism, not every autistic person has difficulty with eye contact. Here are just a few reasons that people with autism have difficulty with eye contact:

  • difficulty focusing
  • social anxiety
  • being unsure when to look at someone in the eyes

2. Speech and Language

Another sign that a child may have autism is if they are not talking as much as other children their age. This can be due to impaired social skills and/or communication difficulties. Most pediatricians will ask if your child is talking at their checkups during their first few years.

Children with autism often repeat certain words, phrases, or even noises that they hear even if they are not engaging in a conversation and using them properly. This is called echolalia. Echolalia is very common among children with autism because it is often used when they are anxious, happy, or even distressed to express themselves.

My youngest son repeats words often even though he may not be attaching the word correctly to the person, item, or action. He seems to like the sound of the word and continues to use it over and over.

3. Difficulty with Social Interaction

Social interaction is very stressful for people with autism. This is mostly because those who are on the autism spectrum don’t know how to appropriately interact and read social cues. They also may have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication which makes it hard to communicate back and forth.

My little guy has a lot of problems with social interaction. He often cannot express to us what he wants and often gets frustrated. One way we have found to communicate with some of his needs is to use sign language and an AAC Device – Augmentative and Alternative Communication. These tools have been a game changer in our family.

4. Not Responding to Name

Have you been concerned that your child is not responding to you when you are calling their name? This is very common with kids on the autism spectrum. It will have you almost thinking they are deaf when you keep calling their name again and again.

However, if you’ve ruled out any hearing issues it may be another sign of autism. Kids on the spectrum can get so obsessed and preoccupied with what they are concentrating on that they don’t pay attention to you calling their name. Others may not be associating their name with the need to look at who’s calling them.

Either way, if you’ve had to call your child’s name 15 times to get their attention you’re in good company.

5. Developmental Delays

Has your child had a recent check-up and been diagnosed with developmental delays?

Children can have delays in their development for many different reasons and it can be physical, speech and language, social, etc. A lot of children who have severe autism do seem to have some type of developmental delay that puts them behind.

My son’s first signs of developmental delays were discovered at his 18-month check-up when he was not yet talking and was having feeding issues.

6. Feeding Issues

Speaking of feeding Issues, most children with autism have some type of feeding issues. Whether it’s being particular about certain foods, having food sensitivities, or physical problems with eating, it can all be a sign of autism.

I noticed when my son was coming up on his first birthday that he would not eat any foods except for (Kroger) baby food pouches CheeZits. And we started getting him into feeding therapy not long after that. Since then we have gotten him to eat more foods but it’s been a real struggle.

7. Specific Intense Interests

People with autism often become intensely obsessed with a specific interest or idea.

Now, I know that all children have particular interests that they may seem obsessed with, but what I am talking about is the need to focus all of their energy on that one topic. All of my children seem to have something they are obsessed with.

My daughter loves anything crafts and her room often looks like a craft fair has thrown up in there. My older son is obsessed with electronics and digital games he can play on the tablet. And my youngest son wants to play with all things on wheels. From cars to trains he loves it all.

8. Obsessive Traits

Have you noticed your child lining up similar toys or other objects? If so, it could be a sign of autism.

This is often an obsessive behavior or a child’s way of controlling and finding balance. Many children will line toys up but kids with autism do it the same way every time and can get very upset if it’s messed up.

My son will line toys in a certain order and cannot stand if anyone moves anything and messes up his things.

9. Needing Routines

I believe that all children thrive on having a routine and knowing what to expect day to day but kids with autism literally cannot function well without a routine. That may mean they expect to have a sort of schedule where at certain times they have meals or naps etc. Or it could mean that they know after dinner they have a bath, and then get their pajamas on for bed.

Either way, each child may have a certain routine that they live by, and if it’s changed or disturbed in any way it can cause a lot of stress and meltdowns.

10. Stimming

What is stimming? Stimming is short for “self-stimulatory behavior”. Stimming is often a way for people on the autism spectrum to have sensory input or relieve any sensory overload they might have. Some common examples of stimming include:

  • hand or arm flapping
  • clapping
  • snapping fingers
  • excessive blinking
  • rocking
  • head banging
  • pacing
  • spinning
  • spinning objects
  • vocal stimming (humming, yelling, mouth sounds, or repetitive words)
  • blinking

I’m sure there are some I’ve missed but you get the idea.

11. Sensory Seeking or Sensory Issues

Sensory seeking is often a way that a person with autism fulfills their need for sensory input. One way that autistic people accomplish this is by “stimming.” A few other ways that autistic children seek sensory input are:

  • running
  • jumping on and off furniture
  • dumping bins of toys
  • rubbing against walls
  • fidgeting
  • rough play
  • licking
  • making loud noises including turning on music
  • seeking bright lights (TVs, shiny objects, sunlight, strobe lights)
  • bear hugs
  • chewing on objects or clothing
  • splashing
  • being in small confined spaces
  • putting fingers in mouth
  • tip-toe Walking
  • standing rocking
  • laying down rocking

One of the biggest signs that I hear of autism is when your child has negative reactions to certain sounds, smells, or textures. These are sensory issues. So for sounds, if your child has a very difficult time with loud noises or needs everything to be very loud this is common for autistic children.

Or if your child is bothered by smells to a point where it seems unbearable. Lastly, if your child only likes certain textures and can not handle other textures, this is a possible sign of autism.

12. Self-Harming Behaviors

Of course, no parent wants to think about their child harming themselves but it is a common thing with children on the autism spectrum. They will often engage in self-harming behaviors when they are having a meltdown or are overstimulated.

  • banging head on the floor
  • hitting self
  • biting self

Unfortunately, I’ve seen these behaviors in all of my children but especially with my son who has severe autism. He cannot communicate when he’s upset or in need of something so he will have a meltdown that results in these behaviours.

13. Sleeping Issues

Is your child having difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep? This is super common among autistic children and adults. There are several reasons that people with autism have problems with sleep. Here are a few:

  • sensory issues
  • racing thoughts
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • lack of melatonin

My son will rock himself to sleep every night and while it seems like it would make me dizzy it helps him with his vestibular input (regulates our sense of balance and body control) and calms his body down enough to get to sleep.

14. Regression

Has your child learned or gained some skills and then suddenly lost them? This is super common with kids on the autism spectrum. They seem to be moving along just fine and meeting their milestones and all of a sudden they have regressed and don’t seem to have the very skills they just learned.

When Should I Have My Child Screened for Autism?

So if your child is showing a lot of signs of autism, your next question will probably be when should I ask the doctor about having my child evaluated?

Honestly, most children start showing autism symptoms between 1 to 3 years old but every child is different and it’s a very individual process.

My children were all diagnosed at different ages and it had a lot to do with their functioning levels. My older two children are high functioning and were diagnosed at ages 6 years old and 3 years old. However, my youngest son who has severe autism was diagnosed at 2 years old.

The best advice I can give on this is to use your best instincts and if you believe your child needs to be evaluated for autism tell your doctor and start the process.

Does Autism Run in Families?

Yes! Autism definitely seems to run in families. In my family of 5, four of us have autism. It seems to be on my side of the family since my sister and a great-uncle of mine have been diagnosed with autism.

However, it doesn’t seem that all autism runs in families so if you have one person in your family that has autism it doesn’t mean your entire family will have it.

Resources for Severe Autism

Having a child with severe autism is hard at times and it can seem impossible to help them function in our world but I have found that there are so many resources that can help you meet your child where they can understand and thrive.

I personally have seen my son learning to use sign language and his AAC device to help him communicate with us and express his needs. This has been huge for our family and has helped with cutting out a lot of frustration on both ends.

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