The average age for diagnosing a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is age 2-3.
My son is 8 years old and he was not diagnosed as Autistic until 6 months ago.
I try not to beat myself up, but at times, I wonder, “How could we have not known!? Why couldn’t I see?”
The reason is complex.
First, my son has high functioning Autism, and, statistically speaking, most high functioning children (Asperger’s) are not diagnosed until ages 7-8.
But still. I was a very attentive mother–I was actually LOOKING for the signs because I had this little niggling feeling that something was not right. Plus, he was my first (twins) child–I was in hyper-vigilant mode!
I remember going from website to website, reading lists of symptoms or children with Autism.
I would tick down the lists:
No, he doesn’t flap his hands or spin for hours.
He can make eye contact.
Sure, his speech is a little delayed but he’s speaking more every day.
Awkward social skills? How can I tell?!
Happy little Benji baby! Smiling, cooing, making eye contact. He never lost skills in his communication and development.
So many of the “symptoms” mirrored every day childlike behavior too:
Dislikes disruptions in routine. Check. Like every kid…
Sensitive about foods or how clothes feel. What 2 year old isn’t?
I tried to dismiss my concerns, telling myself his issues were just due to his premature birth, a quirky personality, and the fact that he’s a boy.
Looking back though, I really didn’t know what to look for. What I didn’t know then was that lists of symptoms on websites like Autism Speaks are very general. Every kid with Autism is different but there are certain signs that I would recognize now if I saw them in my child or perhaps another child.
Here are 10 signs of (High Functioning) Autism that I missed in my son that, looking back, I see were part of his Autistic tendencies:
1. Sensory issues (not just High Energy)
Most boys have a lot of energy. I thought my boys were pretty high energy but figured they were just “being boys.” Looking back, what I realized was not typical was their nearly insatiable need for stimulation (I say “boys” here because it is difficult for me to separate my twins’ behavior sometimes, even though Micah is not on the spectrum. Micah does have ADHD, which overlaps symptomatically with ASD at times).
Such happy little balls of energy (2 years old)
One of our babysitters once told me that Benji used to run and slam into her over and over again. He would fall down laughing, and then rev up for more. She didn’t mind this game but, now, I understand that Benji was trying to stimulate his sensory system by jarring his body over and over again.
My boys would also wrestle constantly. In fact, if we were in the house, they were wrestling. For a few years (ages 3-pre-K) we left every morning to go to a park, etc. because I couldn’t handle the wrestling.
It was literally the only thing they did.
They didn’t even play with toys!
They would only wrestle.
These are just a few examples of Benji’s sensory-seeking behavior, craving movement and bodily sensations in order for him to “feel” the world or “feel” his body moving and working.
2. Sensory issues (not just Pickiness).
About 80% of children on the Autism spectrum have sensory issues; either their sensory systems are under developed and they crave sensory input (like wrestling, swinging, spinning, or flopping on the couch over and over again), or their systems are over-developed and sensory input feels like an assault to their systems.
Benji has both. He is a Seeker and an Avoider.
I have written a lot about Benji’s auditory sensitivities at church, but even before that, I remember how he would do things like hold his ears and cry if the plates clattered when I was setting the table for dinner.
He is also super-sensitive to certain food textures. He refuses to eat anything wet and lumpy like cereal, oatmeal, applesauce, yogurt with fruit bits, or the dreaded, GRITS
(In fact, he has described grits as one of his “greatest fears.” That’s real grit-hatred, folks).
Another huge issue for us has been clothing, especially pants and shoes. I cannot even count the number of screaming meltdowns he has had because his shoes or pants did not “feel right.”
For a long time, I thought these things were just typical kid-pickiness. Some kids are just picky eaters and fussy about clothes, right?
I remember hating corduroy pants. My mom made me wear them to kindergarten one day and I hated the way they felt and the noise they made when I walked. I never wore them again.
The thing is though, that I didn’t throw a 40 minute tantrum because my pants didn’t “feel right.” I just didn’t like them.
Sensory sensitivities can overload the system of an Autistic person to the point where he or she cannot not function or communicate.
Tantrums were part of my daily life. I didn’t know how “not normal” it was.*
Not every child with sensory issues has Autism (Sensory Processing Disorder can be a challenging diagnosis all on its own). However, I include Sensory Issues twice because it is such a huge part of the Autism struggle for many people, and I feel like it is not understood or talked about enough when discussing or diagnosing Autism. For more information on Sensory Issues, I recommend The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz.
3. Underdeveloped Fine and Gross Motor Skills
My twins, sitting up unassisted for the first time at 10 months
Both my twins have struggled with gross and fine motor skills. As they got into school though, Benji’s struggles became more evident. This struggle is tied to his sensory issues, often not knowing where his body ends and where an object begins (such as holding a pencil and pressing it with appropriate pressure to write on paper).
It seemed like a very long time before my twins learned how to use a fork and spoon effectively to eat. They also constantly spilled their drinks; we used sippy cups until they were 5 years old.
However, now, my 3 year old never uses a sippy cup and rarely spills his drink, and my 15 month old can use a fork with ease. I didn’t realize my twins had fine motor issues because I didn’t have anything to compare them too.
In their gross motor development, after my twins learned to walk, both boys were still very unsteady on their feet. They had poor body awareness and fell down constantly. I found myself finding excuses not to go on walks because inevitably, someone was going to fall down and get a bloody knee–cue hysterical crying…again. They had scabs on their knees for months.
Another example: At 8.5 years old, Micah and Benji just learned to ride a bike without training wheels.
We are so proud! We seriously wondered if it would ever happen, especially due to Benji’s struggles with balance, sensory integration, and gross motor struggles (all of which he now works on in therapy).
In my research, I’ve found that many people with ASD struggle with fine and gross motor skills, or executive planning (thinking and then carrying out an action with appropriate skill and force). But before his diagnosis and my research into ASD, I had no idea.
The signs were there but I didn’t know what I was looking for…
…this is just Part 1 of “10 Signs of High Functioning Autism that I missed.”
*All kids throw tantrums, some more than others. However, for us, the tantrums were frequent, over seemingly small things (sensory issues we didn’t realize), excessive, long lasting (20min-2 hours), and my son could not be reasoned with at an age when one can usually reason with a child (3-4 years old).
Does your child have SPD or ASD?
What were the signs for you?