Written by the Reframing Autism team
Very often, as parents, we see signs of developmental differences in our children from an early age.
Sometimes, especially when that child is our first, we don’t necessarily recognise these differences as differences: we have no previous experience on which to draw to compare, to be fair.
Other times, however, we may notice that our bubba is doing things slightly – or, indeed, significantly – differently to the other babies we meet in their parents’ group, or at the local community playground, or in the gym or music program.
Sometimes these differences might be obvious, but other times they are more subtle, more difficult to pinpoint.
Often, professionals may dismiss and reject our parental feeling about our child’s differences: it is very easy for outsiders to wave away a parent’s “gut feeling”, a response that is especially prevalent with new or first-time mothers whose concerns are disregarded as “anxious” or a symptom of “helicoptering”.
The Reframing Autism team have all experienced those moments of the patronising snub, the dismissal of our parental insight as hypervigilance or over-anxiousness. It undermines your self-efficacy and your confidence in your judgement as a parent.
So, how do you know when there is cause for you to think your child is developing atypically?
It is important to remember that your child is not necessarily Autistic if they demonstrate one or more of these differences, and that your child may be Autistic even if they do not demonstrate any of these differences.*
“My children had significant food aversions from birth. I will never forget the lactation midwife assuring me that my tiny, day-old, just-over-2-kg poppet would eat when they were hungry, and she left my baby on me, skin to skin, to latch ‘instinctively’. My baby just didn’t. In fact, they never took the breast. And they have never ‘just’ eaten when they were hungry. Even now, as they near 9, it’s their preferred foods or no food, and their preferred foods are predominantly beige and crunchy, with no mixed textures. Another of my children didn’t eat solids until they were over 14 months due to a severe oral aversion. On the upside, I never needed to worry about someone choking on a foreign object because none of my kidlets ever mouthed anything!”
“My child would overstuff their mouth and then gag on their food. They just liked the sensation of having their mouth full-to-bursting!”
“When transitioning from milk to baby food, it went pretty smoothly. But we really struggled to get my eldest to eat a variety of foods that weren’t pureed. They ate pureed foods long past when most kids transition to solids because it was the only way to get them to eat. Eventually we got a few solid foods accepted into their diet – most notably the (in)famous chicken nugget and anything starchy that came in a packet – but they’ve never again been interested in the variety of foods they would eat pureed as a baby and toddler.”
“It’s hilarious when we have Autistic friends and their children over for dinner. There are always individual plates with varying portions of foods prepared and served differently. One person might only have things smothered in tomato sauce. Another can’t have any different foods touching. One must have different cutlery for each element. One will have things mixed if they are all the same colour. And another can only stomach all the same texture. It’s not unknown to have a dinner party with chicken nuggets and dry cereal, with the nugget box on the table to confirm that it is, in fact, the safe brand and type. And that’s for the adults too!”
“Of my three Autistic children, exactly zero has slept in any typical way. They have always had their own unique circadian rhythm that just didn’t correspond with what I was expecting from the textbooks. No regular ‘sleep cycle’, no settling into a discernible sleep routine, no obvious signs of feeling sleepy, or registering a need to sleep. Sleeping through the night is still unknown to my youngest, who at eight still sleeps in my room, and very often in my bed, but is regularly awake from 1 am to 4 am every night. My middle child finds falling asleep the most difficult. Without pharmacological support, they easily take three hours to fall asleep.”
Language and communication
“I think our child’s story was fairly expected for an Autistic person. Their words were very slow to emerge, and this was the first inkling we had that there was something more to the differences than just ‘quirkiness’. We took our bub to speech pathology from around 2 years old. They also had challenges using pronouns and genders, and even when they were speaking in multi-word sentences, pronouns still presented a significant difference in their language use.”
“Echolalia has always been an important part of my child’s communication. For them, repeating phrases and words is both ‘stimmy’ (it just ‘feels’ good) and communicative. For example, my child and I have a conversation about our favourite colours that is carefully scripted and is repeated – verbatim – many times daily. I’ve long since learnt that my child isn’t actually asking about my favourite colour, they’re engaging me in conversation and connection.”
“One morning, when our child was just five months old, my husband and I heard them lying in their cot, mimicking the sound patterns of a song we often sang to them with an eerie accuracy. We looked at each other. Did other babies do this? It seemed very unusual. To this day, our child loves to sing, and does so with perfect pitch, and loves a good verbal stim.”
Sound and smell
“We’ve had my child’s hearing checked several times throughout their life. It was puzzling because you would call their name standing right next to them, and my child wouldn’t react. But if you turned on the Peppa Pig theme song in a different room, they would come running.”
“My eldest has an amazing sense of hearing and smell. Even as a small baby, they could sense a whipper snipper or lawnmower well before I could. They still can. They tell me now that they hate the noise – not the loudness, but the mechanical grinding and the asynchronous roar of the diesel motor – but it is the smell of freshly cut grass that really turns their stomach.”
“As a toddler, our child loved to play with the metal jar lids by dropping them and listening to the sound they made. We turned it into a game where they would sit up high and we had a metal pan that my kiddo would drop them in. They loved to try to trick us, so they laughed if we missed catching the lid in the pan, but they were equally as pleased when we caught it and it made a cool sound.”
“From 9–12 months of age my child developed a close attachment to the baby wipes we used. They would pull the wipes out, one by one, waft them over their nose then discard the wipe before repeating the action until the pack was empty. Nothing could come between my child and their aloe-scented wipes!”
“It was as if my two children were polar opposite. One relished sensory input, painting their body, rolling in grass and sand, touching everything; the other recoiled from such experiences.”
“My child loved strong tactile sensations. As a baby they would push each toe through the holes in the crochet rug and squeeze them in and out joyfully, like they were kneading dough. As a toddler, they loved to run their fingers along fly screens, eat ice and hold onto the end of my electric toothbrush. My child was a curious explorer, more interested in the world around them, than the people around them.”
“Gosh, how do I explain the differences in touch? My eldest hated any type of messy play and wouldn’t engage in painting, playdough, or even eating with their hands. My middle child can’t stand unexpected touch; although they are fabulous at giving cuddles, it is supremely confronting to them for anyone to give a cuddle without consent. If you ask for a kiss, they are likely to present the crown of their head so they can’t actually feel the kiss. My youngest hated water from a very early age. That and clothes. They still wear as absolutely little as possible, and clothes are carefully chosen for softness, lack of seams, and lack of tags!”
“At the age of three my child could tolerate only one outfit, and wore those clothes day and night. I immediately remembered stories from my childhood of the one-and-only outfit I insisted upon at the same age. My child was identified as Autistic that same year and a few years later so was I!”
“When they were a baby, I noticed other children were drawn to the obvious action in the room. My child was not. They were transfixed by steam, shadows, a mosquito buzzing, the hum of the fridge or a distant plane in the sky. People would comment on how alert my baby was.”
“I learnt very quickly that if I wanted to take my youngest child to a shopping centre, they needed to be carried in a papoose-sling, so that I could cover their eyes and most of their head. I always thought this had to do with the noise, but when they grew old enough to reflect more deeply, we learned that the fluorescent lights reflecting off the shiny floors hurt their eyes tremendously. Now they’re too big to carry, so we either don’t go, or they wear polarised sunglasses.”
“My middle child toe-walked every morning, from waking and for a few hours. They are able to articulate now that their heels feel hypersensitive in the morning and they can’t stand the feeling of the tiles against their instep (they’re quite flat-footed) and heel. Children toe-walk for different reasons, but it is a typical Autistic movement.”
“From when they first started walking, my child liked to walk on their toes periodically – not on tiptoes but with the toenails curled underneath taking their full weight, like a ballerina en pointe.”
Play and unusual fascinations
“One of the most obvious signs of difference for my youngest was their sense of play. Playing, for them, was lining up their Disney Cars according to different classification schemes, and making sure every Lego minifigure they owned (too many to count) was perfectly straight, no kinks, bends, twists. Stimming was always a key play activity for them too.”
“When my child was a toddler, they would hang over the edge of the stroller to watch the wheels go around and were happiest when splashing in water. When we went into a shop, my child would scan the ceiling and look at the lights and ceiling fans, smile, giggle and flap their hands excitedly.”
“When my child was wee, they loved light switches. It was one way we could calm them if they were overstimulated – stand next to the set of four light switches and let them switch on-off-on-off in different order. It fascinated and soothed them in equal measure.”
“At around one year old, my child became fascinated by my collection of foreign language dictionaries. At home they spent hours flipping the lightweight pages of these thick books. For pram outings, my bub opted for the more practical, slim travel language dictionaries. We used to get some funny looks from passers-by as my one-year-old happily pored over the foreign language of choice.”
“My child created beautiful, intricate arrangements of objects: toys, books, cards, coffee pods – any similar objects suited their purposes. There were long trailing lines down hallways and around the bathtub. But there were also spiral arrangements and static scenes, often with great visual appeal. I was in awe of their precision and eye for detail.”
Repetitive behaviours and stims
“All three of my Autistic kiddos have had repetitive behaviours, but my youngest was the most obvious. For around a year, I would put on Disney-Pixar’s Cars 2 for them every day. They wouldn’t watch it exactly … they would put their back to the TV and recreate the sound effects from the movie, acting the movie out with their toy cars. No dialogue, just effects. It was stupendous to watch.”
“From about six months old, our child began to flap when they were excited about something. It was a gorgeous expression of joy that continues today, eight years on.”
If you recognise your child in the experiences our team has recounted here, or you suspect that your child might be Autistic for other reasons, we encourage you to reach out to your GP and outline your rationale. Your GP can advise you of next steps, which generally include a referral to a developmental paediatrician. That might seem confronting or scary, but remember that there is a wonderful Autistic community ready to support you and welcome you and your child.
*We have used the non-gendered pronouns “they/them” throughout our recounts to respect the privacy and emerging identities of our children.