4 Lesser Known Warning Signs of Autism
I may have never realized my older son had autism if his little brother’s warning signs weren’t so obvious. During my intensive research for my younger son, I began seeing some of his older brother’s behaviors listed as symptoms of autism – things that I didn’t realize weren’t “normal.” Many people are under the assumption that autism is a fairly definitive disability, characterized by lack of speech, cognitive delays, and social aversion. Quite contrary to popular belief, it covers a broad spectrum, and many characteristic behaviors are easily overlooked. Make sure you don’t miss some less common warning signs of autism.
The Warning Signs of Autism that I had Missed
When my second son was born, it was immediately obvious to me that something was different about him. Everyone told me not to worry – I was being paranoid – everything was okay – he’d grow out of it – all babies are different – he was just a newborn, etc. Well, he didn’t grow out of it, and the concerns continued.
His autism warning signs seemed obvious to me. He didn’t want to be held or cuddled as a newborn – at all. It was so bad that I had to wrap him loosely in a blanket and set him in a bouncy seat, with his bottle propped on the blanket, in order to get him to feed. He didn’t use both sides of his body equally – he could only roll to one side. He didn’t sit up on time. He would ball up his fists and beat his stomach during diaper changes. He didn’t make eye contact until he was almost 7 months old. He refused to even TRY solids – meaning the stage 1 purees – until he was 11 months old. And the list goes on.
His pediatrician blew off my concerns, and said they would do a short autism screening at 18 months. That did it for me. I wasn’t about to just sit idle, worrying about what to do next, until he was 18 months old. So I started researching on my own.
If you think you may need to do some research, but don’t know where to start, check out this comprehensive autism guide I put together.
The more I researched, the more I got concerned about my older son. Everyone dismissed the idea that he could even possibly be on the spectrum, but resource after resource listed so many of his behaviors, that I found it hard to ignore. Eventually I had him tested, and the psychologist answered with a very definitive, ” Oh yes, he is autistic.” How did the warning signs of autism seem so normal to me and everyone else?
Let’s see if you think these things are typical…
1) Lining things up
Many young children line things up as part of their normal development, so it often gets overlooked. Lining up objects is a precursor to sorting, which is a skill that all toddlers must develop. They line up their toys, then they realize that some of them look similar, and they begin to line them up in an order that puts the similar objects together. Boom! They have just learned to sort.
Most toddlers go through a stage where they line things up regularly, and it is simply a way of showing that they are excited about their new skill. Since this is normal in many cases, here are some things to consider when deciding if your child’s behavior is typical or not:
How often, and for how long, does your child line up objects?
- If this goes on for hours throughout the day, or if your child doesn’t seem to exit this lining up stage after several months, you may want to speak with your pediatrician.
Does he or she place them in a certain order each time?
- If your child has a certain “routine” for lining up objects, it may be cause for concern.
If you join your child in this line up game, does he or she tell you where to place the objects?
- If your child tells you where to place each object when you line things up with them, this probably means that each object has its own special place, in your child’s mind, and that could be a warning sign.
Does your child get frustrated over the placement of the objects?
- Getting frustrated over the placement of the objects typically means that your child has a certain vision for the way things should go, and this is a stretch from typical behavior.
Does your child ever play with the objects, or just line them up?
- Typically developing children will likely play with the objects as some point. They may line up the pieces of a chunk puzzle, but then put the puzzle together. They may line up vehicles or dolls, but then engage in pretend play with them. They may line up cups, but then offer you a drink. My 3 year old would line up all of his vehicles, but wouldn’t play with them beyond that.
2) Emotional Sensitivity
My older son has always been extremely sensitive. He gets his feelings hurt more easily than most, and he is hyper-tuned to conversations that should be far above his cognitive level. He is what people refer to as an “old soul.”
Even though he was only 14 months old when my second son was born, he was very caring and loving towards his new brother. J was constantly in tune with his baby’s needs. He would quickly pick up a pacifier or a bottle and put it in the baby’s mouth, or rub his head. (Of course my mama heart would melt every time!)
See, there is an unfortunate misconception about autistic children being unemotional. The reality is that many children all across the spectrum are very emotional – even more so than typical children – they just don’t express it the way that we expect. Some do, like my 3 year old at times, but others express their emotions in unexpected ways, and we miss it. So if your child is overly emotional, don’t blow that off and think that they can’t be autistic because they can show emotions.
This one went completely under the radar. Whenever I would play with my older son (which mainly consisted of making elaborate “parking lots”), he would tell me exactly where and how to line up the vehicles. Sometimes he would get adventurous and drive his cars along the lines of a rug, or in the folds of a blanket. He would tell me which car to drive, and which ridge to follow. If I would pick a different car, he would get upset and insist that I drive the one he suggested. Otherwise, he would scold me for playing the game “wrong,” and throw a tantrum.
Don’t get me wrong – all toddlers want to control things to a certain degree! That’s part of what they call it the “terrible two’s,” because your child is fighting for control at that stage. But there is a normal amount of control, and there is a not-so-normal amount; use your discernment to determine where your child falls along this line.
Looking back, I kick myself for not being concerned about this behavior. But at the same time, I excuse myself because I honestly just figured it was part of his personality. “Sweet! He’s going to be a go-getter,” I would think. But the truth is that children on the spectrum often seek out control – especially if they are higher functioning. This gives them a sense of familiarity and security.
While it can mean other things as well, if your child is extremely controlling, it may be a warning sign of autism. Speak with your child’s healthcare provider if you are concerned that their behavior has crossed that “normal” line.
4) Sensory Issues
Many people recognize that sensory issues are part of the autism spectrum. But sometimes parents are told their child has sensory processing disorder (SPD), and they automatically rule out autism because they now have a diagnosis.
This was the case with my older son. He clearly had SPD, and began an early intervention program through the state when he was 2 years old. Once I had the “answer” to some of his more obvious behaviors, such as eating and sleeping issues, I thought the search was over for him. So I never would have looked further if it were not for all of the research I was doing for my younger son.
I hear from other parents on a regular basis who have done the same thing: they stopped looking once they got a sensory related diagnosis. Many of the concerned moms in my SPD groups end up being told that their child may have autism, and it confuses them, because they think they’ve already gotten the answer. But don’t stop at a sensory integration diagnosis if your child has other issues.
It is possible to have both SPD (sensory processing disorder) and autism.
My younger son also has SPD, and began early intervention when he was 12 months old. His therapists at the time told me that his sensory issues were the underlying cause of his other developmental delays…and I believed it for a while. I blew off the warning signs of autism because there was a logical explanation for each of his issues.
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The behavioral therapist told me that he likely didn’t make eye contact for so long because he was overwhelmed with too much sensory stimulation. His speech therapist said that he couldn’t speak because he couldn’t sit still long enough to learn to talk. (Guys, at 18 months, he still ONLY used a HORRENDOUS, high-pitched shriek to communicate. It. Was. Awful. He could say “mama,” but rarely did.) His occupational therapist blamed his cognitive delays on his sensory issues yet again: he was constantly overstimulated, so he couldn’t take the time to listen to conversation, and therefore he never learned what the words meant. And of course, this was the reason for his social delays, according to his behavioral therapist.
It all sounded reasonable. And it may have been true too. BUT…that doesn’t mean the diagnosis story should end there. If your child has major social and cognitive delays…even if they have SPD…please speak with their healthcare provider about these concerns. Whatever the case, go with your mom instinct!
I am so glad that I continued to push because of my concerns with my younger son. I probably would not have known that both of my boys were autistic otherwise. I wouldn’t have been able to get them the proper help, and I wouldn’t have been able to really understand them. Knowing really is a huge part of the battle, because once you know what is causing your child’s issues, you can find the right resources to help them prosper.
If any of these behaviors ring a bell with you, check out this great read on autism in toddlers.
Don’t Miss the Warning Signs of Autism
Dear mamas, please don’t let someone talk you out of further investigation. If you are concerned at all about your little one’s behaviors, ask a doctor. Do your research. Don’t miss the warning signs! Autism is such a broad disability, and there are so many ways it can present itself; so don’t be tricked into thinking that your child must fit the mold of a “textbook” autistic individual in order to be autistic.
You are your son’s or daughter’s biggest advocate. If something about their behavior doesn’t seem right, do everything you can to get them the resources they need to prosper. Connect with other parents, and get their support and advice. Cry with others in the trenches, and learn from those who have had successes. You can join my free FaceBook group to chat with other moms about autism and sensory integration disorders. Help is just a click away!