The Signs of Autism in the Preschool years

The signs of Autism in the Preschool years in ages 3 - 5 years.  Up until the year before formal school some families will keep expectations of a child low. “She is still just a toddler, she will be right”. Then there is a realisation that this is the Pre School year. The idea that Kindy, Prep (or whatever people call the more structured formal schooling year) is coming up, can spur parents to really observe “how ready is their child”.

autism in the preschool years

Signs of Autism in the Preschool years

Might not become fully obvious until they reach pre-school when suddenly differences and developmental lags between them and their same-age friends becomes more pronounced. Signs of Autism in 3 years, signs of Autism in 4 year olds and signs of autism in 5 year olds can all look slightly different. There are slightly higher expectations to get “school ready” placed on children as they get older which can highlight autistic features more. The unusual behaviour, disinterest in other children and lack of talking can no longer be put down to them just being “babies” or “toddlers”.

autism in the preschool years

Many children by the pre-school year have already received a diagnosis of autism. The signs of autism identified in the toddler years frequently persist into the pre-school years.

autism in the preschool years

Difficulties in Communicating for children with Autism in the Preschool years (3 to 6 years)

Even at 3 years of age many children with autism are still not talking. Early intervention to provide some means of communicating before they start school becomes more urgent. Others pre-school age children may have established at least some spoken communication however it is often characterised by:

  • Unusual intonation or speaking patterns e.g., tone of voice is atypical, pitch and loudness variations are poor
  • Repetition of the same words or phrases over and over. These words or phrases may remain the same for long periods of time or can be used intensely for a day or so before it is superseded by a different phrase.
  • Echolalia where they repeat back what is heard. (e.g., “Hallo Tommy” is responded to with “Hallo Tommy” or they respond to a question with the same question
  • Semantic or word knowledge or skills can be poor
  • May appear to want to ask for something at times but then not able to co-ordinate their speech.
  • Receptive language or understanding concerns can become a more obvious sign of autism in the pre-schooling years. There is an expectation to know colours, shapes, positions (under, over, on). An inability to t understand simple directions, statements, or questions can be a sign of autism.
  • Children begin to play with humour (and begin to find “toilet talk” such as wee-wee head funny) in the preschool years. A sign of autism can be a lack of understanding of intended humour. They are often literal and miss hidden inferences, irony and sarcasm.
autism in the preschool years

Non-verbal and Interactional Signs of Autism in the Preschool years

Many of the signs of autism relating to poor interactions discussed in the signs of Autism in Toddlers are also seen in the Pre-School. This includes:
  • A mis-match in the facial expressions they use and what they are actually saying or meaning.
  • Eye contact is likely to continue to be poor.
  • Children with autism frequently lack the ability of reading other people’s non-verbals
  • Use limited to no use of gestures
  • Strong reactions to sensory input can continue (e.g., sights, smell, textures of sounds).
As they begin to start to go to semi-formal and formal playgroups or classes

Signs of autism may be brought to the forefront. Sensory overloads from too much noise or stimuli may result in behaviour and other negative reactions to be triggered.

Abnormal posture, clumsiness, or eccentric ways of moving

(e.g. walking exclusively on tiptoe) may continue from the Toddler period to this age

Other children may start to notice that the child with autism is distance or “ignores them”.

The child with autism at preschool may “annoy” others if they are hitting out or taking somethings they want off others seemingly with a carefree attitude. They find playgroups etc. difficult if they do not want to be touched by others. However, in areas such as indoor play or sandpit play children are often in close proximity. Children may attempt to cuddle them and children with autism may not respond or respond negatively to such approaches.

​May find having to move from task to task (transitioning) extremely difficult.

E.g. from indoor book reading to outdoor activities.

autism in the preschool years

Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours: Signs of Autism in the Preschool years

Again many of the signs of autism seem at younger ages stay with the child but they might be displayed differently. For example:

  • As routines begin to move outside the house and into the community they can still display the rigidity of wanting routines to stay the same (e.g. insists on wearing certain clothes under certain circumstances or insist on taking a particular route to preschool settings)
  • While Kindy and Prep classes have a certain amount or routine there are often many reasons for schedules to change (sports days, a concert to attend, a teacher is sick or away). A sign of autism can be difficulties in adapting to any changes in schedule or environment (e.g. throws a tantrum if the desks or furniture are rearranged).
  • Play skills frequently continue to be delayed or atypical. e.g. to toys or strange objects such as keys, light switches, or rubber bands, opening and closing doors/windows. They may show interest in “unusual” objects that move (e.g., motors, fans, wheels on vehicles rather than driving the toy vehicles, brands of cars, often they can develop very narrow interests and only want this interest to be met.
  • Repetitively lines things up or arranges them in an order that may seem difficult to see from our perspective
  • If strong obsessive interest arose in the toddler years they may continue or emerge the preschool years. with a narrow topic of interest, often involving numbers or symbols (e.g. memorising and reciting facts about maps, train schedules, or sports statistics)
  • Repeats the same actions or movements over and over again, such as flapping hands, rocking, or twirling (known as self-stimulatory behaviour, or “stimming”). Some of these behaviours can be detrimental (e.g., picking of skin, head banging, finger flicking). Many of these behaviours start to be seem more atypical as the children interact more with peers. (e.g., spinning any object, tapping rubbing ears, spinning around in circles age,
Autism we can help

Is SpeechNet Experienced in Autism?

SpeechNet Speech Pathologists are experienced in:
  • Early and late diagnosis of ASD.
  • Individual, group, CCC/school treatment and consultative services service for children with ASD form infancy through to 18 years of life.
  • We aim to assist families along-side medical specialists to tease out if presenting difficulties are more likely to be aligned with autism or another diagnosis (late talker, language delay, intellectual impairment, dyspraxia, hearing impairment etc).
  • We are able to provide an individual treatment plan for your child to meet their learning needs and to assist them to participate in their particular community.
  • As we work closely with OT, Psychology, Dietitians and physiotherapists that have all had notable experience with children with autism, our speech pathology services are offered within a holistic family friendly framework.

​For more information about our services take a look at the information links on this page for each specific age. Alternative contact us today for a no obligation chat about how we can help.

autism in the preschool years

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