Autism in the early years

Early identification of autistic traits can help put support in place to meet individual needs. Sarah-Jane Critchley describes what to look for and how to talk to parents

Author details

Sarah-Jane is a keynote speaker, consultant, coach and author who wrote ‘A Different Joy: The Parents’ Guide to Living Better with Autism, Dyslexia, ADHD and More...’ and contributor to two books on autistic girls. As Programme Manager of the...

As an early years practitioner, you are likely to be one of the first to see differences in a child. How you manage that conversation with a parent is key to how the family copes and the positive outcomes for the child in the future. They may be worried about their child and could be autistic or neurodivergent themselves.

All autistic people share differences in the way they experience and respond to the world around them when compared to non-autistic people.

Each autistic person is different and will experience the world around them in their own individual way. You cannot make assumptions about how something will feel for a child in your care based on how it feels for you. What you can do is to be curious about what the world is for them, and to help them to feel safe, make sense of, and navigate their world.

Some autistic children do not speak. This doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say!

What autism looks like in the early years

Some children’s difficulty with managing their interactions, their learning and the environment around them is clear to see. Others are more subtle in their presentation. It could be the child who:

  • sits on their own absorbed in their own play in the corner
  • finds it hard to separate from their carer at drop off
  • makes unusual noises or movements, 
  • flaps, taps or walks on tip toe
  • struggles to play with other children
  • finds it hard to focus on adult-led activities.

As an early years practitioner, you are not qualified to say whether they are autistic or not.

What you can say, is that they are different to most of the children in your setting and as that they may be showing some early signs of autistic traits and it is helpful to seek an assessment to know how to work with them best.

The key differences are below.

  1. Sensory. Autistic people experience and understand the world differently. 
  2. Social Communication, interaction and imagination. Autistic people communicate differently and tend to understand each other but struggle to understand and be understood by non-autistic people. 
  3. Special interests and information processing. You may notice a child only plays with one toy, or the same way each time. It takes extra time for autistic people to process information.
  4. Need for certainty. Much of the world is frightening and unpredictable for autistic children, creating a need for routine, reliable and familiar people, things, and places.

Autism is not related to intelligence. There will be children with learning disabilities who may not speak and others are fluent talkers and early readers. It is normal for an autistic child to have a very ‘spiky profile’ with areas of strength and real difficulties. Be curious about the profile of each child as every single child is different.

Be especially aware that autistic children are less likely to be identified early in life if they are:

  • girls
  • not white 
  • able to make eye contact and speak.

Autistic children experience the world in a very different way. This is different, not less.

Sensory differences

You might notice different responses to the sensory environment.

Sensory avoiding. They may:

  • cover their ears, run away or cry at loud noises
  • shade or cover their eyes 
  • remove clothing
  • cry or lash out if touched
  • be very picky eaters.

Sensory seeking. They may:

  • love to bang, crash, shout, sing or play music 
  • get completely absorbed in sensory play (e.g. lights, water, or sand play)
  • want to stroke or touch your hair, clothes or other people
  • lick things
  • flap, tap and spin or bounce
  • follow the lines on the floor, mats or carpet.

Many autistic people use ‘stims’ (flapping, tapping, dancing, tip-toe walking, bouncing, fidgeting) to help them regulate emotions and recover from overwhelm. These are vital to long-term wellbeing. Learning how to regulate reduces behaviour that challenges other people.

Social communication, interaction and imagination

Autistic children struggle with understanding other children. It is hard enough for them to cope with the chaos that is going on around them. Expecting them to understand and interpret other small humans who are working on a different operating system is asking a huge amount from them.

In this stage, it can be helpful to narrate how someone else might be feeling. Be clear and explicit in what you say.

Some autistic children do not speak. This doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say! Use whatever communication they have whilst you seek support from speech and language therapy.

Special interests and information processing

When you look at what they love to play with and what brings them joy, the autistic child is giving you an insight into their world. Use what they love to help them learn. If they love dinosaurs for example, you can teach numbers though counting how many T-Rex’s are on a page (or in a play set).

When sharing instructions try to make sure they are:

  • clear and predictable
  • backed up with visual prompts
  • keep instructions short.

A need for certainty

All autistic people share differences in the way they experience and respond to the world around them when compared to non-autistic people.

Make what you do safely predictable. You can:

  • have settling in visits (with the parent present)
  • have a shared timetable for your activities using real items or symbols e.g. Widget
  • follow a predictable structure every day
  • give them the same place to sit
  • tell the parent if anything is going to be different
  • have someone who really gets to know the child
  • plan transition into your setting and out into school.

How to have the conversation with a parent

Hearing that there is something ‘different’ about your amazing young person is painful and confronting. Parents often feel blamed and judged by the challenges they are facing. You can start them on a positive road to discovering their amazing autistic child. Below are some points to help.

Be aware that they know their child better than you do. They may also be the child’s safe space and key interpreter of the world. They hold the information you need to help the child to thrive in your setting.

There is further information on how to have this difficult conversation in the AET Early Years Training, Standards and Competencies.

Key points

  • Autistic children experience the world in a very different way. This is different, not less.
  • Be curious about what that is for them, and help them to interpret what is happening
  • Be aware of your sensory environment. Do what you can to meet their individual sensory needs. 
  • Manage change and plan for transition into and out of your early years setting to reduce anxiety.


Last Updated: 
14 Dec 2022