This is Part 2 of my three part series about the “10 signs of High Functioning Autism that I missed” in my son. If you missed part 1, where I discuss sensory issues and motor skills, click here!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I missed these signs with my son. The reality is, I had a version of “Autism” in my head, what I thought Autism looked like. I thought that children with Autism didn’t develop speech (no words by 2-3 years old), didn’t interact with the world around them, exhibited stimming behaviors such as rocking or hand-flapping, or they developed normally for a time and then lost speech and relationship skills suddenly, usually between the ages of 2-3.
All of these things do happen and can be seen in children with Autism, but not always. Benji didn’t exhibit any of these issues or qualities.
His signs were much more subtle, but they were still there. Looking back now, I can see them.
4. Communication Issues
Benji was never diagnosed with a speech delay but he probably should have been. However, both my twins were slower to speak but I reasoned that this was due to their premature birth (36 weeks) and the fact that they were boys.
However, the older Benji got, the more I realized that his normal speech was not “normal. I wrote more about this topic in this post.
What I didn’t know then was that many children with Autism have trouble communicating, sometimes in their actual speech, but even more so in expressing their thoughts, emotions, and even sequencing their thoughts into patterns that make sense to the listener. My son struggles in these areas due to his Autism.
One “right” thing I did when my boys were babies and toddlers was introduce them to sign language. They were obsessed with Signing Time DVDs and probably learned 100-150 signs. Signing really helped us with the communication issues I wasn’t even fully aware of at the time.
5. Won’t respond to verbal instructions
A few weeks ago, I unearthed a 30-second video of when my twins were 2. In the video, I asked Micah, “What’s your name?”
“Micah!” he chirped happily.
“How old are you?”
I then turned the camera to Benji and asked him “What’s your name, little dude?”
He didn’t respond or look at me. I asked him over and over again, “What’s your name, little dude?”
Nothing. I laughed in the video and I remembered how I felt perplexed because I knew he could tell me his name. He had done it before.
I then asked, “How old are you?” and Benji suddenly looked at the camera and said, “Two!”
I remember being pleased, and asked him again, “What’s your name? Can you tell me your name?”
But again, he didn’t respond.
At the time, I thought Benji was being silly or stubborn because he had answered these questions before. I just wanted to get his cute little voice on video.
But as I look back at this memory, his selective communication, his lack of understanding of one question vs. another, and his detachment from me and my efforts to communicate with him, I now see as evidence of his Autism.
Even now, at times, Benji struggles to understand directions, questions, and instructions. I often have to word things differently and encourage others to do the same, such as when we were at the eye doctor last week and the attendant asked him to “read the letters.” He was silent and I knew he didn’t understand (how could I “read” the letters? Those letters don’t make words!). So I asked, “Benji, can you name each letter on the screen?”
Struggling to interpret and then respond appropriately to the verbal world is a battle for many people on the spectrum.
6. Not “checking in” while playing
A few months ago, this video (What Autism looks like in toddlers) popped up on my facebook feed. One part that really stuck out to me was when babies, playing near their mothers, would look back at their moms to “check in” as if to say, “Mommy? Do you see me? Are you still there?”
The mom would smile at her baby and the baby would smile back and go back to playing.
This is normal, typical development for babies and toddlers. They gain independence through crawling and walking but they still want to be connected to Mom and share experiences with her. “Checking in” through a glance, coo, or laugh during play is a way to share a personal connection.
As a baby and toddler, Benji never did this. We had a connection and a relationship but, as I said yesterday, most of his awake time was spent wrestling with his brother or running at parks. When he was playing he was in his own “world” and he didn’t try to share his experiences with me or “check in” during his play time.
When I first saw this video, I wondered, Is this “checking in” thing for real? I decided to observe my baby, Eli, who was about 9 months old at the time.
I watched him crawl away.
Hmm! Blocks! These look fun! He started to chew on one.
My phone rang and I answered it.
Eli turned toward the noise. Then he put the block to his own ear, smiling and babbling.
He glanced up and caught my eye, and said “Dada!”
See, mommy? Look! I talk to daddy on the phone just like you.
And there it was: “Checking in” (plus pretending. See #7).
It brings me so much joy to see my baby interact with me and the world around him. But realizing that I didn’t have these precious moments with Benji hurts sometimes.
7. Not Pretending
Many people with Autism are concrete, black and white thinkers. Pretending, imagining, or taking the perspective of another person are often very difficult concepts to grasp.
For example, in a recent therapy session, Benji’s therapist had to reword all her questions to him because they began with “Pretend you are–”
“I don’t do that,” he bluntly interrupted. “I don’t pretend.”
And it’s true. He doesn’t pretend. A yellow block is always a yellow block. It will never be a banana or cheese for a stuffed mouse to nibble.
Pretending or imaginative play is part of normal development for neurotypical babies and toddlers. I see this type of development in my younger two sons (3 and 15 months) as they pretend that a string is a snake or as they feed themselves “peas” from a green Lego.
But when Benji was a baby and toddler, he didn’t play pretend. Honestly, he didn’t play with toys much at all, except for certain types (more on that tomorrow).
If he does make up a story or play out an imaginative game, the game or story is directly related to something he has seen in a movie or read in a book. His brain builds upon what he already knows; creating a new world, game, or perspective simply out of his imagination doesn’t fit in his black and white paradigm.
Did you know that the word “Autism” is taken from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self”?
People with Autism typically relate to the world as it fits into the paradigm of what they already know through personal experience (which can look very different from the experiences of a neurotypical person, especially if an Autistic person has sensory integration challenges).
In order to understand another person’s perspective, to understand different situations, feelings, or even cultures, you have to employ the imagination.
This is why personal relationships are often a struggle for people on the spectrum because taking the perspectives of other people requires the use of imagination.
Fortunately for Benji, he relates very well to stories and especially movies. By relating to the characters in his favorite books or movies, I can often help him see the perspectives and feeling of other people, or even help him understand himself more fully too.
All of the signs I discussed today were very subtle. They were there but I didn’t know what I was looking for…
Are you looking for encouragement in the middle of your own unpredictable journey right now? I’d love for you to check out my book, Unexpected: Learning to love your unpredictable story. It’s available here on Amazon in print and Kindle form.
Is your child on the Autism Spectrum?
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