Was that “toddler” or was that “Autism”?

My son is 3.6 years old. He is our first born. He has Autism. Do you know how many times my husband has looked at some shenanigan Caleb was in the middle of and legit asked me “Is that toddler or is that Autism?”

He’s not being funny- he’s not being mean- he’s being straight up. Toddlers do some crazy nonsense. Autism has its own unique set of tendencies it likes to bring to the table. If you’re a first-time parent, if you’ve never been around a child with Autism- I totally see why you’d be perplexed.

Let’s go over some scenarios:

My toddler just ran 11 laps around the dining room table and is now trying to swing from the chandelier like a marmoset who just downed a 12 pack of Mountain Dew.

Let’s break this down.

Toddlers have an insane amount of energy. Toddlers are active and sometimes fearless when it comes to climbing, jumping, and swinging from chandeliers like caffeinated primates. These are in fact things that toddlers who would be considered typically developing might do. But let’s take a closer look. Is your child simply full of energy or is your child exhibiting sensory seeking behaviors? Kids who are just being active may like to run and jump but they’ll likely do other typical things as well such as make a social game out of it, seek out your eye contact to see if you’re noticing, talk about the ridiculous things they’re doing while they’re doing them, etc. Here are some things that I noticed that did NOT strike me as typical when Caleb used to run laps around the table. He was seemingly oblivious to whether we were there or not. That was a decreased awareness to his environment. When he ran in a circle, he would tilt his head to the side and try to look out his peripheral as he was moving. That was a visual stim. That climbing up and down, up and down, up and down from the floor to the table was him seeking out proprioceptive input (I’ve talked about heavy work here). So, my pretty brass chandelier was replaced with a globe light flush to the ceiling, and chairs just started living at my dining room table full-time last November. Caleb was active and that’s ok, but the stimming and the strong sensory seeking tendencies needed to be addressed. Literally, as I write this, he is spinning in a circle in the living room, stimming off of Batman and Superman’s capes flying around with him. You do you, man.

Oh my toddler’s language is great! He can name all the state capitals, knows all the moons to all the planets, and memorized pi to the 12th digit.

But can he tell you when he’s angry? Or what he did at school today without prompting? I think sometimes people get confused between a child having a certain quantity of language overriding the fact that the quality of language isn’t what it should be. Having a favorite topic is fine. Having a highly preferred topic is fine. Talking about a topic as a fixated interest, however, is not typical. If your preschooler can tell you about a historical event, a certain animal, a region of the world, but is unable to tell you what he and his friends did at nursery school or respond to a “wh-” question without going off topic, I strongly encourage you to bring it to your pediatrician’s attention. Or maybe, you have a child prodigy. I’m not judging, here. But I know Caleb can count to ten, but doesn’t have a word for “hungry” or “hurt.” He can label his colors but doesn’t have words for all the foods he eats. He knows the alphabet, but he’s never said his name. You can have all the language in the world, but if it can’t be used functionally, it is going to make all the difference.

I’m 6 inches from by toddler’s face, saying his name, but he won’t stop watching Clifford and his big red dog self to look at me.

Who hasn’t lost a battle to the tv with a toddler? Daily!? Toddlers also can have selective hearing and are motivated simply by what they want to be motivated by. But think back for me. When did your child start consistently responding to their name? It should have been by 7 months, definitely by 9 months. If it was after 12 months, I would consider that a red flag. It doesn’t have to necessarily mean anything by itself, but in conjunction with potential other concerns you may have, it could definitely by noteworthy. Also, note to see if your child is responding to environmental sounds even if they’re not responding to speech input. Maybe they were fixated on Clifford, but did they respond when their real life dogs barked at something outside or when they heard the front door open up? Always bring any concerns about hearing to your doctor’s attention.

My toddler just had a melt down because I gave him the blue cup instead of the red cup and told him he couldn’t play in the toilet. 

DUDE!!!! This is the hardest! There are entire sites dedicated to “Ridiculous Reasons Why My Child Cried Today.” Because phrases like “terrible twos” and “threenager” exist for a completely valid reason- because the attitudes of toddlers and the attitudes of teenagers can both be terrible. And there’s a lot of social-emotional development going on in a little person in a small amount of time- you betcha it’s overwhelming. We have a hard time with this here. Part of Autism is that you can have a hard time with impulses when things don’t go as anticipated or when you need something to be a certain way because of a compulsion. For instance, Caleb sometimes gets upset with how food is presented to him. The fries need to be on that side of the plate, the chicken on this side. He wants to make it into little pieces. 100%, I caught him eating the around the chocolate shell of an M&M to get to the peanut, putting the chocolate and peanut into different piles, and eating everything pile by pile. That is a compulsion. On another note, maybe he earned some tv time but after awhile went to play in another room so I turned the tv to Pandora. He might come back and have something to holler at me about for it. That is a toddler power play. And that’s a whole different beast.

Ultimately, I always tell people that before your child is a toddler with Autism, you child is simply a toddler. And some typical things that toddlers have been known to do without concern are also things that find themselves on the “red flags for Autism” lists. While there’s no steadfast rule for every child, if you have concerns that persist, if you have a gut that a behavior isn’t quite typical, or if you’re worried about your child’s language development- always bring it up to your child’s pediatrician. Also- disclaimer- try not to be too “if/then” with development. I remember about 5 years ago, a very popular parenting magazine came out with an article that was something to the effect of “Words Your 1-Year Old Needs to be Saying.” And literally, the last sentence of that article was “if your child isn’t saying one of the words on this list, please take them to the doctor to talk about the potential for Autism.” No joke, 2 weeks later, I got a referral in my office of a mother who was concerned her 14 month old had Autism because he wasn’t saying the word “juice.” No other reason- just the “juice” thing. I will say, good for her for being worried and taking action instead of being too scared to move. But, look at the whole picture- the whole child. Trust your gut, talk to your doctor, talk to another one if that one doesn’t listen, and remember- those toddler tantrums will fade but that means fun things like toddler snuggles will too. So, no matter how he makes you feel about him behind his back sometimes, don’t forget to cover that sweet face with kisses when he turns around.

Love and Autism, ya’ll. Have a good day.