Signs of Autism in Young Children.

We get many questions asked to our teams throughout the week and one question which was highlighted was how odd is the lining up thing? Is it relatively normal for my child’s age (this boy is 4), or might this be indicative of other problems?

Firstly, thank you for all of questions, we love hearing from you all. And will endeavour to continue to support you all. In regard to the question highlighted - I’m going to say that this child sounds very, very developmentally normal. MANY, MANY toddlers go through a “lining things up” phase. And it’s a good phase, because it’s actually a SKILL. “Which of these things are the same? Which are different?” Children start differentiating items in more sophisticated ways and grouping them together can honestly just be a little game to them.

Your child starts with recognizing that truck magnets are all truck magnets. They might start ordering them by colour next, or by size. Then maybe they’ll decide that construction trucks are a separate category, while magnets depicting vehicles like ice cream vans or buses are something different. This is what typically developing two-year-olds do: they start to really recognize the order of the world and mimic that order through play.

So why, if lining up toys is such a normal toddler trait/habit (which it is), has it gotten bumped to the top of every parents’ Autism Bogeyman checklist? At some point, that line of cars or “train” needs to go somewhere. The play scenario needs to get a little more involved as the child’s mind moves to simple imitative play (i.e., the cars go beep-beep and around in a circle) and then into complex imaginative play and problem-solving (i.e., the cars drive to the store but oh no! we ran out of petrol! what do we do now?).

In answer to their question – yes, the child sounds about where they should be. Social children pay attention to what’s going on around them. They take it in, process it, and one day completely surprise you by hauling out a set of toy pots and pans, making you a wooden-apple sandwich on a plate, pouring imaginary juice into a cup, and waiting patiently for you to eat it.

What we need to be looking for is whether they are imaginative. And we can do this by playing with them and create scenarios where maybe the trains went to pick up people? Or visited the windmill?

The lined-up cars are in a race! The red one is going to win! The green one is going to lose. Oh, he’s sad that he lost. I’m tired of this. Let’s play Star Wars. I’m Darth Vader and I’m the BAD GUY! You better run, Mummy! I mean, Princess Leia!

Things to look out for.

1. Tantrums and freak-outs over disruption of the “line” and the “order” are something to keep an eye on. How regular and predictable is their daily schedule? Could it maybe use a little more structure or has something happened recently to change things and thus they’re feeling a deeper need for order?

2. Pay attention to the line and see if they deviate from their own order or pattern. Is the point simply to line up every block to make a really really long line – Yay! and it doesn’t matter what order the blocks are in? Or is there a specific order they’ve memorized that they must repeat every single time? This can help you figure out just how “rigid” they are being. But again, if they are just not that used to playing with other children, any upset you witness could still just stem from that. Also, if you notice that they’re designing complex repeating patterns, it could be that they’re just a smarty-pants.

3. Encourage them to think beyond the line. Once the magnets are all lined up, ask them WHERE the trucks are going. Are they going to the shops? To the park? Don’t get upset if they don’t get it at first (or second or third) — just offer examples of slightly more complex play scenarios for them to absorb whenever you can.

Once more, lining up toys is a perfectly normal thing that perfectly normal-developing toddlers often do. It is not a single sure-fire harbinger of developmental doom.

If your still concerned, here are some differences to watch out for;

- A preference for playing alone almost all the time (even when encouraged to participate in typical forms of play)

- Inability or unwillingness to grasp basic rules of shared play (turn-taking, role-playing, following the rules of a sport or board game)

- Engaging in activities that seem purposeless and repetitive (opening/closing doors, lining up objects, flushing the toilet, etc.)

- Inability or unwillingness to respond to friendly overtures from adults or peers

- Apparent obliviousness to other children's behaviours or words (wandering through a group without realising they're engaged in play, climbing on a slide without realising there is a line, etc.)

- Apparent inability to grasp the basics of symbolic play (pretending to be someone else or pretending that a toy has human characteristics, etc.)

What Autistic Play Looks Like?

While it is typical for toddlers to engage in solitary play from time to time, most graduate quickly to "parallel" play during which more than one child is engaged in the same activity at the same time (two children colouring in the same colouring book, for example).

By the time they are two or three, most children are playing together, sharing an activity or interacting in order to achieve a goal.

Autistic toddlers often get "stuck" in the earliest types of solitary play or engage in activities that have no apparent meaning or purpose.

Here are some scenarios that may sound familiar to parents with young children or toddlers on the spectrum.

· A child stands in the garden and tosses leaves, sand, or dirt into the air over and over again

· A child completes the same puzzle over and over again in the same way

· A child stacks objects in the same pattern and either knocks them down or becomes upset if someone else knocks them down

· A child lines up toys in the same order over and over again with no apparent meaning to the chosen order

Why is it that children with autism play differently? Most are facing some daunting challenges which stand between them and typical social communication. Among these challenges are:

Lack of Imitation Skills: Typically developing children watch how others play with toys and imitate them. For example, a typically developing child might choose to line up blocks one next to the other the first time they play with them. But as soon as the typically developing child sees others build with the blocks, he will imitate that behaviour. A child with autism may not even notice that others are playing with blocks at all and is very unlikely to observe others' behaviour and then intuitively begin to imitate that behaviour.

Lack of Symbolic Play Skills: Symbolic play is just another term for pretend play, and by the age of three, most children have developed fairly sophisticated tools for engaging in symbolic play both alone and with others. They may use toys exactly as they're designed—playing "house" with a pretend kitchen and eating plastic food. Or they may make up their own creative pretend play, turning a box into a fortress or a stuffed animal into a talking playmate.

Children with autism rarely develop symbolic play skills without help. They may enjoy placing engines on a track, but they're unlikely to enact scenes, make sound effects, or otherwise pretend with toy trains unless they are actively taught and encouraged to do so. Even when they do engage in symbolic play, they may repeat the same scenarios over and over again using the same words and even the same tone of voice.

Lack of Social Communication Skills: In order to be successful in pretend play and imitation, typically developing children actively seek out engagement and communication, and quickly learn how to "read" the intentions of other people. Children with autism tend to be self-absorbed and have little desire or ability to communicate or engage with playmates. Peers may see this behaviour as hurtful ("he's ignoring me!") or may simply ignore the autistic child. In some cases, autistic children are bullied, scorned, or ostracized.

Lack of Joint Attention Skills: Joint attention skills are the skills we use when we attend to something with another person. We use joint attention skills when we share a game together, look at a puzzle together, or otherwise think and work in a pair or group. People with autism often have impaired joint attention skills. While these skills can be taught, they may never develop on their own.

If a lack of play skills is a possible symptom of autism, is it possible to teach a child with autism to play? The answer, in many cases, is yes. In fact, several therapeutic approaches focus largely on building and remediating play skills, and parents (and siblings) can take an active role in the process.

All of these techniques can be applied by parents, therapists, or teachers, and all have the potential to be helpful. None, however, comes with any kind of guarantee; while some children with autism do develop solid play skills others find the challenge too great. For most parents, the best way to get started is with the involvement and help of a trained therapist who can provide coaching and support.

In summary you’re doing everything that you can possibly do for your child. Maintain a watchful eye but understand that ‘lining up toys’ or wanting to play alone can often be developmental leaps – and not an ASD diagnoses. And if you’re still concerned speak to a professional and they can help.

Peace and Love to you all,


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