[Note: I will use identity first language throughout this post. For more information on identity first language versus person first language, particularly as it relates to autistic people, please check out these two posts on Autistic Hoya.]
Some parents of babies and toddlers may notice that their little one seems like they’re operating at a different frequency than the other kids at the playgroup, or they may have flagged a couple of questions in a developmental questionnaire at the pediatrician’s office, but they don’t know where to begin looking for information. A simple google search leads to articles like “Early Warning Signs Your Child Has Autism” and it feels dangerous, perhaps alarming. When you look at your perfect little baby who you love, you only want good things for them; you only want to think good thoughts about them. Yet all that seems to exist for exploring ideas about their neurology is article after article warning you that your perfect little kiddo may have something wrong with them that requires immediate intervention to give them a chance in life. Phew! Deep breath.
Autism, at its core, involves differences at the neurological level that affect sensory experience, communication style, and information processing. These things can affect executive functioning. Much of the framing around signs a baby or toddler may be autistic is about how the parent experiences what their child does. None of it encourages a parent to look deeper into their child’s experience. What’s worse, none of it comes from a loving or accepting place.
Many parents considering whether or not their toddler is autistic may be interested in approaching the question with love and acceptance for who their child is and what their experience of the world is, but there’s not much out there for them to connect with or learn from. I’ve attempted to take the clinical screening questions along with other information and turn the language and ideas on their head a bit, so that they reflect an empathetic view of the child’s experience, and offer an accepting re-framing around pathologizing, clinical language and concepts. In the writing of this piece, I have sought feedback and input from autistic parents of autistic children*– one of the best resources around for connecting the outward behavior of young autistic children with their unique experience of the world and autistic identity.
This is by no means an exhaustive or definitive list. Autistic children are children, and they’re all unique individuals. They may have some of these characteristics but not others; they may be completely opposite in some cases! That’s to be expected.
Here are some differences parents may notice about their baby or toddler who is autistic based on clinical screening guidelines for babies and toddlers**:
-You may notice that your child doesn’t communicate as you expected or the way you see other children their age communicating. Where other children point to things to express interest or desire, your child may not show you as explicitly. When you call their name or give a simple direction, they might not respond at all, or they might give you half a glance and return their interest to where it was before. Many autistic babies and toddlers do respond to their name and simple directions at least some of the time if not all.
If your child is doing these things, it may be because they are taking in so much information from the world around them that it’s difficult to prioritize what you’re asking them to prioritize– paying attention to you! They may be learning about what the texture of their clothes feels like, where the light from the window goes, what sound the neighbor’s dog makes, what the diaper pail smells like, what your voice sounds like, and what that leftover chunk of banana in their cheek tastes like all at the same time. Your child may be remembering and working through all they learned in play earlier that day and be extremely focused on categorizing or analyzing that information. All those things may feel as big and important as any other, and sifting through all of them to get to your request is a lot to ask. Your child may also be experiencing thought tendrils (see Tendril Theory by Erin Human) and not be prepared to interrupt their current thought process and transition to another just yet.
-You may notice that your young child is very interested in visual things like light, ceiling fans, dust floating near a sunny window, or they may use their hands to make movements that they watch. This is known in the autistic community as visual stimming, and is a way that autistic children (and at times all children, because everyone stims) seek out positive sensory information to focus on as a form of self-regulation. “Stimming” is a way of bringing about sensory input. For an autistic child who is experiencing an onslaught of sensory information that may be overwhelming, finding a pleasant sensation to focus on can be soothing. A bonus to visual stimming is that it is great for fine motor skill development in the eyes, which is particularly important in learning to read.
-You may notice that your child has unique physical movements, such as rocking when they sit, twisting around when they stand, or they may flap their hands when they are experiencing delight (and sometimes when they are sad, too). Your child may enjoy the vestibular input of being pushed on a swing or spinning around even more than the other children you see. This is another aspect of seeking positive sensory input. There’s nothing wrong with these movements, although because they look different than the movements of other kids sometimes parents want to intervene to make them stop. Allowing children the freedom to move their bodies is a basic aspect of respect for their bodily autonomy, and an important part of teaching them body boundaries to keep themselves safe. If your child has unique or stereotyped movements, they have found great coping skills for being in their environment– this is a good thing! Accepting your child as they are means accepting the way they move through the world. Plus, pushing your child on the swing is a really fun past time, and makes for great Instagram photos.
-You may notice that your toddler doesn’t seem quite as interested in other toddlers and young children. They may take a lot of time watching others play before they join in, or they may not join in at all. Your toddler may show interest by spending a lot of time looking, but not much time, if any, engaging directly with other children. Autistic people interact socially in a different way than their non-autistic peers. Your child may be observing in order to try to learn the social language of their peers who do not have the same way of communicating and interacting as they do. A cautious approach feels safer. This doesn’t mean they are “stuck inside” themselves or have a social “deficit,” it means they are trying to learn about how others interact before sticking their neck out. Studies and the expressed experiences of autistic people confirm that autistic folks read each other’s cues better than they read the cues of allistic, or non-autistic, people. Having autistic friends of all ages will be a really beneficial aspect of your child’s social development if they are indeed autistic.
Your child may not use your facial expressions as social cues because they haven’t interpreted what all of them mean yet.
There is an erroneous but widespread belief that autistic children are withdrawn, “zoned out,” and disconnected from other people, that they are not communicating and that these things are deficits. The reality is that autistic children are especially engaged in the world and in things around them. They are passionate and focused as they collect information. The deficit is in the way allistic people interpret their focus and communication. A part of raising an autistic child is learning about what their experience is and how they communicate it. If you watch and listen closely, perhaps mimicking your autistic child’s intense focus on collecting information and analyzing it, you will see that autistic children are very expressive in their own way, and can be remarkable at setting and expressing boundaries, and those boundaries will assist you in parenting and in protecting them from outside harm.
-You may notice your baby or toddler does not make eye contact, or does not like prolonged eye contact. This comes up first on most lists. Allistic people and developmental pediatricians have their own special interest in eye contact! For most people, eye contact is a form of communication and intimacy that is a standard aspect of interaction. For autistic people, it can be incredibly intense, even painful, to engage in or prolong eye contact. This is not a sign that a child is not engaged, or that they cannot be emotionally intimate– it’s a sign that they are experiencing many things at once, including lots of emotion, probably lots of emotional connection as well, and that adding your intense gaze is overwhelming. Some of what they might be processing all at once: the entire sensory profile of the room (sounds, visual stimulus, smells, textures), your voice, your words, your body language, interpreting what all those things mean, trying to remember if there is a specific way they are supposed to respond to those things, and more. Eye contact is one more thing to process, and can also feel like scrutiny. It can be so distracting that it’s difficult to know what the next “correct” social move is supposed to be.
Plenty of autistic children do make eye contact or learn that there is a social reward for approximating eye contact, like looking at people’s eyebrows. Autistic children may make eye contact with their parents and siblings only, but not with others. Many children have had their diagnosis delayed or rejected based on the idea that autistic people never make eye contact or look into people’s faces. This is another way the stigma and stereotypes of autism can be harmful to autistic children– by denying them access to their autistic identity and supports based on stereotypes.
Communication looks different for autistic people, and that can mean that other ways of communicating besides speech are better for your child. It can also mean that from an early age an autistic child speaks with fervor and gusto about their favorite subjects.
Some of the things you may notice about your baby or toddler if they are autistic that are not always a part of early clinical screenings, are:
-You may notice -You may notice that your child is not particularly interested in bringing you things to show you, or getting your attention to watch them as they try new things, while other kids their age may be doing that. Autistic children are taking in lots of information and processing it. They may be a little too busy or preoccupied to bring it to your attention. They may also assume you already know or are doing the same thing because to them it is so obvious. What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to an autistic person and vice versa. This does not mean your child does not want you to engage with their interests and activities! If your child isn’t using your way of communicating to show you what they’re working on, you can try using their language to show them you are interested nonetheless. One way of doing that (that is appropriate for all toddlers regardless of neurology,) is to put yourself near them and engage in a similar style of play. If they are coloring, quietly color your own picture nearby. If they are lining up cars, sit across from them and line up blocks in a similar pattern. You may find that they will use this space to communicate a lot about what they are learning and interested in, just not in the way you might have expected.
-You may notice that your child is very sensitive to noises that may seem commonplace to you. Autistic people can experience sensory stimulus in a much more intense way than non-autistic people do. This can mean that what feels like 40 decibels to you feels like 140 decibels to them. Imagine trying to carry on a conversation and learn in a room with a jet engine going. You’d probably get pretty cranky and overwhelmed in short order. Whatever your child’s reaction to noise– it is reasonable– the experience they have of sound is very real, and not something they can just “get over.” Many young children are sensitive to noise, and it makes sense. The constant noise around us is a pretty modern phenomenon. Garbage trucks, dishwashers, blow dryers, beeping phones, background TVs, the neighbor’s constantly barking dog– none of us were evolved to have to filter out these noises all day, and autistic people filter and process sensory information differently, so this constant sound burden can take up a lot of coping skills.
-You may notice that your child’s gross motor development takes a little longer or that they walk a bit later than their peers or siblings did. This is not the case for plenty of autistic babies, but it may be for some. Babies and children organize their development in a compartmentalized way. Often times they focus on one area almost exclusively, ignoring other areas of development for awhile. For autistic children processing lots of information from the world around them and trying to observe and learn the behaviors of all the non-autistic people around them, some other skills may get put on the backburner for a little bit. Lots of opportunities for play and movement will give them the tools they need, and there is no reason to believe that the age at which a child walks has any predictive quality about any other aspect of their life.
-You may notice that your child’s speech development is unfolding differently than their peers. They may speak less or not at all. One rubric used is that a child is not using two-word phrases by 18 months. Often times delayed speech or having no speech has been so intensely focused on by doctors that precocious speech in autistic children is used to deny a diagnosis or make a long term assessment about an autistic child’s future. Precocious speech can also be a part of an autistic child’s repertoire, for example, using complete sentences in early toddlerhood. your child needs more time and warning than other children you observe to transition between activities. Some examples are diaper changes, leaving the park, ending play with a specific toy, leaving the house, and getting into the car seat. These things can be difficult for any little one. Your toddler may spend the first part of their day at preschool observing from a safe distance. If your child has a hard time transitioning between activities, plan extra time to support them, and give them lots of early notification that the activity will be changing– even if you don’t know if they understand you yet. This can mean an extra 5 or 10 minutes of playing around the car seat or playing with the buckles before it’s time to get into the seat and buckle it to leave, or setting one of more “warning” timers on leaving the park (10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, and so on). This goes back to Tendril Theory. Your child may be deeply engaged and quick changes are startling and dysregulating. Allow your child a chance to observe before joining into an activity. Observation is learning, it’s not a bad thing.
-You may notice that your toddler becomes intensely focused on a specific topic. The most stereotyped of all these interests is trains, of course! Who doesn’t love trains? But there are plenty of ways autistic toddlers become focused on specific subjects. They might be interested in or passionate about certain media characters, collecting specific objects like rocks or sticks (or anything, really), a specific way of playing, like stacking objects into towers, insects or animals, drawing the same subject, mixing colors, or anything else under the sun. A lot of times these interests are called “special interests,” and there can be a lot of pathologizing around them or comparisons to obsessive compulsive disorder.
What parents should know about special interests is that they are incredibly rewarding and therapeutic to autistic people. They bring joy and delight. When a non-autistic person learns a lot about a certain topic, they are considered an expert. While an autistic person may be an expert on their special interest, often they are called a “savant” or have their expertise treated as a symptom rather than a positive trait others can learn from. If your child expresses a passionate fervor for something, pay attention and learn about it with them. There is no better way to show them how much you love them and are excited to be their parent than to express a desire to learn from them about what they love to do. This may mean that if your autistic child uses speech to communicate that you listen to an hour of chatter about all the different types of trains or how a rhinoceros beetle uses its horn to flip a rival every day. Let your child share their delight with you! Try to be delighted with them!
-You may notice that your child develops a nervous habit around social interaction. A lot of adults have a really difficult time with the social behavior of respecting children’s boundaries. They get into little ones’ faces and ask questions and try to force a giggle. They may expect social reciprocity for hellos and goodbyes your child isn’t ready for yet. This can be overwhelming to any young child, and especially to autistic children. Some examples of nervous habits in response to social pressure are covering their face with their hands, turning away and burying their face in your shoulder, nose picking, playing with their hands, and attempting to run away. They may also set a stronger boundary, like putting out a hand to push someone away, yelling, or crying. While other adults may not perceive these as socially appropriate behaviors, setting a boundary on one’s space is a crucial skill and young children should always be supported in doing so, no matter their neurology and no matter how much Grandma clutches at her pearls.
-You may notice that your child melts down or has tantrums from an early age and particularly in certain situations, like going to the grocery store or family parties. The amount of sensory stimulus in places we take our young children can be overwhelming for any toddler, but it can be downright painful for autistic toddlers. Crowds of adult voices talking, fluorescent lights, ambient noises, repeated demands for social engagement, and lack of familiarity are some of the things that can just push a little one beyond their limits to cope and they may break down.
When a neurotypical adult is in a situation the average person finds to be extremely stressful or torturous, most people find that their emotional response is reasonable, even if it is crying, yelling, throwing things, hitting a wall, or pulling out their hair. When a child experiences things that have the same effect on them, we call their response “behavior” and try to forcibly stop it. Sensory overwhelm in a sensitive child is just as real as the torment adults can face in oppressive*** situations, and we should take it seriously. If your child melts down when they are overloaded, provide them with a safe place to release their feelings and reorganize their thoughts. This may mean sitting with them as they scream, cry, say they hate someone (maybe you), and move their body wildly. Give them as much safety as possible while restricting their movement as little as possible. Being a loving, calm, and accepting presence as your child processes intense feelings will only bring them closer to you in trust and love. It is not reinforcing a behavior or “giving in,” it is providing emotional stability and safety.
-You may notice that when your child takes on a new activity, like preschool, that their tolerance for other things, like food or clothing textures, is reduced. We all have a certain amount of bandwidth for each day to do all the things we need to do. For autistic children, a lot of that bandwidth is spent on sensory processing. When you add something new to your child’s workload, like lots of social interaction or physical play, they will have less energy to for sensory processing. Adding new things to their life may mean they need a break in other areas. Often times this means some foods they used to eat are rejected, or clothes they used to wear become too tight, scratchy, or stiff. These rejections make perfect sense, and you can help your child adjust to changes by being flexible about other areas of their life, like buying multiple set of their favorite comfy clothes, or taking selective eating in stride.
-You may notice that your baby or toddler has a unique “lovey,” or comfort object. All children may connect with a certain object as a source of comfort, such as a teddy bear or blanket. Sometimes autistic children pick less typical objects to tote around and find comfort it. They may not be soft and cuddly or represent animals or people, but they are just as important to your child’s security. Of all the unusual loveys I have ever heard of, my favorite was a rubber spatula: a useful tool for play, an object to chew on, and with an easy to grasp handle so it doesn’t slip away during naps! Perfect!
-You many notice that your toddler uses the lines from TV shows or movies rather than their own words. Or they may repeat the things you say back to you to convey the answers. For example, your child may ask, “Are you thirsty?” to tell you they would like some water. After all, it is what you say before you offer them water. This is not parroting, it is important and valuable communication. When an autistic person uses scripting, sometimes they are explaining a feeling or experience by using a different story they’ve heard to do so, because translating their experience into words is difficult. Listen closely for the feelings conveyed and the bones of the experience laid out. Don’t get caught up in the details of the script, which may or may not be a perfectly accurate description of what your child is trying to tell you. Scripting is a very useful tool that all people use to some extent or another. Often times autistic people use scripting in a more noticeable way, particularly in early childhood.
-You may notice that sometimes your child communicates with speech, and other times they do not. It is easy to assume that since they can talk sometimes, they should be able to do it all the time. That is not necessarily true for autistic people, who can lose speech for periods of time under stress, or have an up and down trend around speech development– for example using a word and then no longer using it. Look to all your child’s actions as a part of their communication. All communication is meaningful and valid, whether it is physical, behavioral, spoken, signed, gestured, sung, recited, or some other type. All children learn multitudes of ways to convey their needs, feelings, and ideas to their parents as they develop, but our culture tends to value speech above all else. Listen and observe your child as they show you all kinds of ways to communicate you may have forgotten since you were a child. Find the magic in it– it’s there.
-You may notice that your child has unique ways of playing with toys, such as lining them up in a row, sorting them by color, stacking them into towers, or otherwise organizing them instead of playing make-believe. This type of play is just as valid, meaningful, and important to learning as any other. A part of being autistic is sorting and processing information differently, and this is one aspect of that. Rather than assuming your child is doing something wrong, spend some time copying what they do to show them you are interested. They may show you a whole new set of criteria for sorting, categorizing, and making patterns that you had never considered before.
-You may notice that your baby or toddler does not like to be held as much as you would expect, or at all. Being held may be an overwhelming amount of sensory and social stimulus for them to process as they focus on their surroundings. Alternately, your baby or toddler may relax and calm down most when being held tightly or worn in a sling, because the gentle squeeze of pressure around their body gives a calming sensory input in an environment where they are overstimulated. Listen to your child’s cues about physical contact and honor them. Remember, it isn’t really about you and what you wish they wanted from you, it’s about meeting their needs for emotional and physical connection how they need to be met. When you do meet those needs, even if it isn’t how you expected, it will be rewarding for both of you.
-You may notice that your baby or toddler has a great eye for detail. They may notice things you didn’t, or respond to changes in their environment you wouldn’t think they’d notice. They might notice and play with the tiny string coming out of the seam of your pants while you hold them on your lap. Most kids notice things adults overlook, because so much is new to them and they have a different perspective at their size. Autistic children can often have an even more refined attention to detail than their peers. This is a really fun aspect of parenting an autistic child– seeing all the things you are missing through their eyes.
-You may notice that your toddler has a different perception of danger and safety, and needs more guidance around freedom to explore and strangers than you might have expected. This can mean your toddler makes friends with everyone at the park and would like to examine their picnic basket. It can also mean they explore without worrying how far they’ve gone, or what dangers may be in the area they are exploring. They may run further than is safe just to feel the breeze on their skin and the pounding of their feet in the grass. Your child is counting on you to gently help them learn what is safe and what is polite. Be patient with them and explain why you are setting a boundary every time.
-You may notice that your child makes unusual noises, perhaps in response to things, or perhaps absent-mindedly as they go about their business. This may be humming, blowing air, making popping or clicking noises with their mouth, repeating a word, phrase, or sound over and over again, squawking, copying an animal noise, or any number of interesting sounds. This is generally referred to as vocal stimming, or creating sensory input by making noise. This can be calming and regulating for autistic babies and toddlers, and it is a part of learning how to use their voice, as well. When autistic children create their own sensory input, it helps them process, filter, and ignore other sensory input they can’t control. Whenever possible, be supportive of this outlet. Your own sensory experience is important too, so try to find compromises that allow your child to stim and give your ears a rest often enough that you can remain patient. A huge part of parenting work is trying to figure how everyone’s needs can be met harmoniously– vocal stimming is a need.
Again, this is not an exhaustive or definitive list. If this sounds a lot like your child, you may be interested in finding out if they are autistic. Seeking a diagnosis is complicated, and there are pros and cons to when, where and how to seek a diagnosis that I hope to write about another day. I will say that autistic children know they are different, but without the naming and acceptance aspect of autistic identity, they may perceive themselves as consistently failing, or being somehow wrong in the world. This is a terrible feeling. Loving and accepting your child as they are is a foundation for their sense of self, whether they are autistic or not.
*of which I am also one
**adapted from the modified M-CHAT screen currently used as an initial clinical assessment tool to screen babies and toddlers for autism
***I used the word ‘oppressive’ here intentionally because an inaccessible environment that is causing pain to an autistic person is oppressive according to all the definitions of the word, however, I would point out that we do not require neurotypical adults to experience actual oppression to feel understanding or compassionate about their outbursts.
Special thanks to Sonya Austin Emerick for consulting with me about overwhelm, communication, and for reminding me to mention how connected and passionate autistic toddlers truly are– and most of all for sharing her beautiful children’s lives with me.
Special thanks to Salem Leonard-Goosby for consulting with me on eye contact, communication, peer interaction, and for sharing tons of wonderful anecdotes about his children, who sound like very cool people.