Signs of Autism

Part Three: Behavioral Characteristics

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder consisting of particular behaviors in three categories:

  1. Communication
  2. Social skills (also called pragmatics)
  3. Behavior (specifically restricted or repetitive behaviors, interests, or actions) 

This article will focus on autism characteristics that fall under the third category of behavior. I will describe what neuro-typical is or what is considered a typically-developing child’s behavior. I will also compare this to the actions of autistic or neuro-diverse behavior.

What are the behavioral characteristics of autism?

Repetitive or stereotypical behavior

  • Typically developing children enjoy certain actions like clapping and waving but do these actions during appropriate times.
  • Autistic children often engage in the same action repeatedly, which may not be during the appropriate times.

Example: Kioni is a 30-month-old boy, and his mother notices he loves to clap, but he claps all the time and for no reason and many many times in a row. He also enjoys flapping his hands, wiggling his fingers near his eyes, and spinning in circles. If she tries to stop these repetitive movements or do something else, like play with a puzzle, he becomes frustrated.

Having trouble adapting or needing an exact routine

  • Typically developing children thrive with routines but can adapt to changes, and this ability improves as they mature.
  • Autistic children often have trouble adapting when their routine has changed. They may become distressed if the routine isn’t the exactly the same. 

Example: Daniel is 36 months old, and he is used to his morning routine of eating his favorite breakfast of toast and bananas while watching his favorite episode of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” He does not like any other episode, only this one episode, and he does not like many foods, only foods that are brown or white. He will only eat toast and bananas for breakfast, and it must be on a blue plate. One day the TV isn’t working and there so he cannot watch his favorite episode. Daniel becomes very upset at this change and will not eat his food. His reaction is extreme, and his parents struggle to distract him or calm him down. They don’t remember their other children being so inflexible.

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Highly restricted interests

  • Typically developing children have favorite activities or things that they are especially interested in, but they can be enticed to participate in other activities and usually enjoy trying new things.
  • Autistic children may have highly restricted interests, meaning their interests are very limited and very specific. It can be difficult to entice them to participate in other activities or try new things.

Example: Mark is a four-year-old boy months-old-boy who has always loved playing with vehicles ever since he was one year old. His mother has tried to interest him in other types of toys but has found that he has no interest in it unless it is a vehicle. She has also noticed that he only likes books or shows about vehicles and only talks about vehicles. She worries he is “obsessed” with vehicles and doesn’t know how to interest him in other items or subjects.

Highly interested in unusual objects

  • Typically developing children may show an interest in an item that they find unusual but do not become “fixated” or “obsessed” with this item.
  • Autistic children may become highly interested in unusual objects and become fixated or “obsessed” with that type of item.

Example: Abby is a 27-month old girl who enjoys babydolls, barbies, and stuffed animals, but her mother notices that she does not play with these items in an expected way. She describes Abby as being “obsessed” with their eyes. She will look closely into the toy’s eyes, touch the eyes, and poke the eyes for up to thirty minutes but not play with the item in any other way, even when shown. More recently, Abby has been very interested in people’s eyes and has even tried to poke her mother’s eyes.

Hyperactivity or hypoactivity to sensory aspects

  • Typically-developing children have what would be considered “average” reactions to sensory input, including hearing, vision, smell, touch, and taste.
    • Example A: Bobby quickly pulls his hand away when he feels how hot the slide has become from the slide.
    • Example B: Martina bumped her head on the slide and reacted by crying, rubbing her head, and going over to her parent for comfort.

Example of Hyper-sensitivity: Manny is three years old and has been diagnosed with Autism. His father first felt concerned when he noticed Manny was frightened by sudden, unpredictable sounds like a telephone ringing or the dog barking. He would often cover his ears as if the noise was painful for him, though the other siblings in the room, both younger and older, didn’t seem bothered by the sound.

Example of Hypo-sensitivity: Austin is three years old, and he has been diagnosed with Autism. His mother first noticed signs of Autism when he began banging their head against the wall, furniture, and floor items and didn’t seem to be in pain.

Toe walking

  • Typically developing children walk naturally and allow their feet to fully touch the ground
  • Autistic children may avoid placing the entire foot on the ground while walking and engage in toe-walking or walking on the tips of their toes.

Example: Allen walked normally with regular foot movements until he was 16 months old and then began walking on his tippy-toes. He is now 24 months old and still walks on his tip-toes most of the time.

Common Questions about Autism

If you have insurance, a great place to start is with your pediatrician. Discuss your concerns with them and ask for a referral for a developmental evaluation from a pediatric psychologist and speech-language pathologist. 

 

If you live in the United States and your child is under the age of three years old, contact your state Early Start program and ask for a developmental evaluation from their team of professionals. These services are state-funded and free of charge.

 

If you live in the United States and your child is under the age of three years old, contact your local school district and ask for a developmental evaluation by the school psychologist. These services are state-funded and free of charge.

Contacting a licensed professional in your area is the best way to get answers, but of course, this process takes time. I'm sure you are feeling worried and want to start something right away to help your child. That's why I've created the online course for parents called How to Teach a Toddler to Talk.

Yes! As a speech-language pathologist, I’ve helped scores of autistic children learn to communicate. Waitlists for evaluations can be quite long, and speech therapy is not as accessible during the covid-19 pandemic, so while you pursue in-person services, enroll in my online course for parents.

One of the critical skills that autistic children struggle with is communication, and that is what speech-language pathologists are best at treating! I specialized in this autism speech therapy during my master's program in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology. In my DIY online course for parents, I share my step-by-step process for helping your child from home.

An estimated 60% of autistic people learn to talk in some manner through intervention. I'd love to share my expertise with you in my online program, How to Teach a Toddler to Talk! and give you tangible steps to start today with your child.

Check out Adrianna’s story. She’s a mother of a child with autism and she found help through my online course.

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Disclaimer: This information is meant for general education and not to diagnose. Every child is different, and Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex developmental disorder that can manifest differently in other people.

Note: I am electing to use identity-first language to describe the Autistic community in this blog because it is the preference of many Autistic people.

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