Primary school children and the possible signs of autism

Development for all children is dependant upon cultural expectations and family experiences and each child will develop at their own pace. As we know autism is a spectrum and children may show signs early or later in their development and the symptoms may range from mild to severe. In some instances there may associated learning disabilities such as an Intellectual Disability(ID) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) and this will mostly likely have been identified by the child’s preschool/ kinder service. What is important to remember is every child is unique and there are resources to help families and educators to navigate the journey.


Often signs of autism may not become noticeable until a child commences school. The move from kinder or an early intervention program into the first year of school will ordinarily pose challenges for many children. The class teacher may raise concerns about your child’s level of adjustment into the school routine and how your child responds to what is requested of them.

Concerns could become apparent at any time as your child advances into the primary years of education.  If you think there is a possibility of your child having an ASD or the teacher has discussed his/her observations with you then the two observable areas for consideration are; Communication and interaction; Repetitive behaviours, interests and environmental responses. If a number of the following indicators exist, you may wish to gain a formal assessment.

Communication and Interaction

Spoken language may be unusual in several ways

  • Very limited use
  • Monotonous tone
  • Repetitive speech, frequent use of stereotyped (learnt) phrases, content dominated by excessive information on topics of own interest
  • Talking ‘at’ others rather than sharing a two-way conversation
  • Responses to others can seem rude or inappropriate

Responding to others

  • Reduced or absent response to other people’s facial expression or feelings
  • Reduced or delayed response to name being called, despite normal hearing
  • Subtle difficulties in understanding other’s intentions; may take things literally and misunderstand sarcasm or metaphor
  • Unusually negative response to the requests of others

Interacting with others

  • Reduced or absent awareness of personal space, or unusually intolerant of people entering their personal space
  • Reduced or absent social interest in people, including children of his/her own age – may reject others; if interested in others, may approach others inappropriately, seeming to be aggressive or disruptive
  • Reduced or absent greeting and farewell behaviours
  • Reduced or absent awareness of socially expected behaviour
  • Reduced or absent ability to share in the social play or ideas of others, prefers to play alone
  • Unable to adapt style of communication to social situations, for example may be overly formal or inappropriately familiar
  • Reduced or absent enjoyment of situations that most children like

Eye contact, pointing and other gestures

  • Reduced and poor use of gestures, facial expressions, body positioning
  • Reduced or absent social use of eye contact assuming adequate vision

Reduced or absent joint  attention shown by lack of:

  • Gaze switching- lack of awareness of when to move eye gaze
  • Following a point- not looking where the other person points to but may look at the hand instead
  • Does not point at or give objects to share interest

Ideas and imagination

  • Reduced or absent flexible imaginative play or creativity, although scenes observed on visual media (television) may be re-enacted
  • Makes comments without awareness of social niceties or hierarchies

Repetitive behaviours, interests and environmental responses

Unusual or restricted interests and/or rigid and repetitive behaviours

  • Repetitive movements such as hand flapping, body rocking while standing, spinning, finger flicking
  • Play repetitive and oriented towards objects rather than people
  • Over-focused or unusual interests
  • Rigid expectation that other children should strictly adhere to rules of play
  • Excessive insistence on following their own agenda
  • Extremes of emotional reactivity that are excessive for the circumstances
  • Strong preferences for familiar routines and things being ‘just right’
  • Dislike of change, which often leads to anxiety or other forms of distress (including aggression)
  • Over or under reaction to sensory stimuli, for example textures, sounds, smells

What is important now is to remember that your child is unique and development will occur for them at their pace. If after reading this, you or the teacher have concerns you may wish to seek further information such as our ASD planning flowchart  or our article on Diagnosing ASD .


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