And welcome finally to Part 3! This is the continuation of our series “What’s Your Autistic Toddler Like Now?”, a journey through what’s happening these days in the life of our autistic 3 1/2-year-old son and sequel to our very popular original article, “What’s Your Autistic Toddler Like?”. I meant to write this sooner, but illness has swept through the Flashlight household and rendered us all pretty useless this week.
I’m calling this group “Moderately Present” as these things are generally more common than not around here, but not as prevalent as the “Significantly Present” group from before. As with the previous posts, some of these are challenges for us and others are just things that are part of our day-to-day life. None of these are meant to be value judgments, just information about what one autistic toddler is like so you can perhaps see similarities in your own children or learn more about how these things are part of another family’s life.
I’ll be dividing this group into two parts. So we’ll finish this up in Part 4 soon.
Note: Wherever you see “DSM-IV” below, this means that attribute is part of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition or DSM-IV. In medical terms, a specific combination of those DSM-IV criteria is what brings about a diagnosis of autism.
Same obvious disclaimer as before: We are not advising you on how to evaluate your child. Go get them evaluated by professionals with extensive experience with autism. Don’t just rely on some random people on the Internet – namely, people like us.
And here we go!
Characteristics That Are Moderately Present
Fixation or attachment to a particular object or parts of objects (DSM-IV; hard one to nail down for us) – For some, this manifests itself as obsessive-looking hoarding and organizing of objects. You might also see this as what seems like excessive fascination about a particular object (looking at a particular train for a long time or staring at a ceiling fan) or part of an object (a spinning wheel on a car).
The J-Man is all over the map on this one. It has gotten more noticeable over time, but I wouldn’t call anything he does here a major issue. The object(s)-of-the-day rotate regularly through an array of toys. For the longest time it was wooden blocks. Then it went to pieces of his farm animals puzzle, and then on to flash cards, and then wooden numbers, and then stuffed animals (which was cause for much rejoicing actually!), and then plastic food, and then randomly back through the order, occasionally mixing in some other things.
In recent weeks, he’s been OK with not having things in his hands all the time, which I think was a big part of the reason behind his object attachment. It seems like the objects in his hands give him a sense of safety and help something about his sensory system. It doesn’t bother us or cause any real issues, though trying to get him dressed or buckled into the car seat with two ginormous stuffed animals in his hands is a bit of a chore.
The interesting part is that it’s almost always two things he carries everywhere – no more, no less. And in addition to that, it’s almost always two like objects. For example, it wouldn’t be one flash card and one stuffed animal. Apparently, that’s a major category violation. It’d be two flash cards or two stuffed animals. Interesting!
When he was a baby, he was absolutely transfixed by ceiling fans. As fussy as he could be, staring at them was very calming to him. When he was several months old, I remember that we went to Lowe’s and ended up near the ceiling fans aisle. It was like he had gone to heaven!
When body care meets sensory issues (well, it has been worse…) – Not sure what to call this one, but in this category I’m thinking about things like teeth brushing, haircuts, nail clipping, bathing, etc. Bathing usually goes off without a hitch. Early on in his life, we established bath time as a consistent ritual since he already had so many sleep issues. Having a regular nighttime routine helped that somewhat. It’s generally a time of winding down and some play in the bath for him now. We haven’t had any significant bathing issues in a long time.
We actually stopped going to the kids place that used to cut his hair because he completely melted down every time they cut his hair. That’s no statement at all against the haircut place. They did a magnificent job cutting his hair even while he was freaking out and did everything possible to help him. It was just awful for him, and we feared all this was scaring the other kids there too. So, we bought some hair clippers and decided to try to do it at home. We put him in a high chair, strap him in, I try to hold him as still as I can, and Mary cuts his hair as fast as possible.
Mostly, it’s been just as rough at home as it was at the haircut place. I’ve actually sprained my wrist a couple of times trying to hold him. All that said, the last time we did it, it was less bad. He still was very, very unhappy about it, but the screaming and fighting was less. We try to cut his hair very short so we don’t have to do this often. What’s funny is that all the boys in his class have the same haircut as all of them have the same problem.
Nail clipping has been an adventure too. For a long time, it took both of us holding him to get his nails cut. This has gotten somewhat easier, but it’s still not something anyone looks forward to. For the last few times now, I’ve had my hands on him lightly and said “Say Clip!” in a sing-songy voice (think Click the Camera “Say Click!” from Diego) every time Mary clips a nail. Our main goal really is to just get through it. If we do and no one gets hurt, we declare victory and move on. I’ve sprained that same wrist a couple of times doing this too.
I know teeth brushing and dental care is a huge problem for many parents. As we’ve talked about in other posts (see our recent fun at the dentist and our original series “Dreading the Dentist” and “Survived the Dentist”), going to the dentist is rough – to put it mildly. Being so oral-defensive, it took us months and months just to get in his mouth to do anything. We still brush his teeth a lot with washcloths, but we do brush once a day (at night in the bath) with a toothbrush using training toothpaste (no fluoride), and they also brush his teeth a couple of times a day at school.
So with months and months of practice, we’ve gotten into a pretty good routine with this. And the dentist says his teeth look great! I sympathize with every parent struggling with dental care. What a long-term battle this has been and continues to be. If our situation is in any way average, it seems the only way through this is persistence and small steps forward.
If you struggle with any of these things, you aren’t alone. Trust me.
Lining stuff up and compulsive organizing (DSM-IV; sometimes, but not that common, plus it varies over time) – This is one of the first things people think of when they think of characteristic signs of autism. However, this really hasn’t been the case for our son. This is one of those ‘moderately present’ things that’s probably closer to being uncommon.
The J-Man goes through phases, but his insistence on particular types of order isn’t very common. For example, for a while he was a major block stacker, and then that went away. Recently, he has certain puzzles that, if he sees them in the state of being unsolved, he sits down and solves them. Given his aptitude for those sorts of things, he can do this in a minute and move on.
A sweet example is when he arranges people, usually on the couch. He arranges us the way he wants us, and then he crawls in between us and looks very content. It’s very cute, plus it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy.
So even though you hear a lot about autistic kids lining up cars and sorting and organizing their toys, that’s not always the case. At least it isn’t that much the case for us. Still, this is something you’ll want to look for if you suspect your child has autism as it is one of the possible diagnostic criteria for it.
Travel (moved from significant last time to moderate now!) – In the past, travel has been very rough for us. It’s still not great, but it’s manageable for 2-3 nights as long as we drive. We haven’t dared try flying yet. He doesn’t sleep well away from home, and him sleeping generally involves him staying up and being rocked or held until he just passes out from exhaustion.
He will not go to sleep on his own away from home, though oddly, he will sleep with the grandparents. (He won’t sleep with us at home.) The staying awake until exhaustion wins out is an issue that hasn’t changed much, but his overall stamina during the day is better thanks to building up some endurance from long school days. He often averages about 3 less hours of sleep a night when we’re not at home, so in 2-3 days, the accumulation of that gets rough. Honestly, none of us travel that well, though.
We’ve never taken him on a plane and definitely have no intention of doing so any time soon unless it’s in one of those local planes at a fair where the guy will take you up for half an hour and buzz you around the countryside.
In short, we don’t travel much at all, especially not now with Mary pregnant. But he’s gone from being miserable away from home to giving us a 2-3 day window of things being manageable.
If you’re interested in traveling issues, see “Everything I Know About Traveling With An Autistic Toddler”. “Surviving a Long Trip and a Baker’s Dozen of Things We Learned”, “Developing His Own Calming Strategies During Travel”
Gross motor – (much better) The J-Man was a very late walker (almost two years old when he started) and has had a variety of sensory issues that have messed around with his balance. I wouldn’t say he’s the most coordinated kid in the world, but our concerns on things like balance, walking, running, etc. are minimal now.
However, movements like throwing or kicking a ball are still nearly nonexistent for him. He’s finally gotten back into climbing stairs again. He looks wobbly doing it and fusses quite a bit about it, but he does do it, and we’re proud of him for working at it despite the frustrations.
There’s also still the larger issue of him being able to sequence movements when asked to. This seems to fall more under the heading of “motor planning” (see “Difficulties with motor planning” in Part 2 of this series), but I imagine there are still a number of gross motor skills he needs to acquire.
I admit I’m a little concerned about the lack of kicking and throwing of a ball and related body movements. It’s not urgent to one’s development to be able to throw a ball or anything, but it has made us a little worried that this is indicative of something else we should be working more on.
Responding to his name (moved from significant to pretty good!) – Getting his attention can sometimes be a challenge, but I think this is the case in most three-year-olds. When he gets into a fixation/perseveration ‘trance’, we’ve learned that if we say the first syllable of his name, he then gives you (at least some of) his attention and says the last syllable in his name. Whether he actually listens to what you say after that is another matter, but the kid is 3; what do you expect?
The funny thing is that when we call him with his whole first name, he often thinks he’s done something wrong and says, “no, no!” This is cute and sometimes useful, but not exactly what we were going for. Well, it’s still progress. Many months ago, he was largely unresponsive when we called out his name.
He’s getting better at understanding the concept of names, which is something that seemed to not register with him for a long time. We play variations of ‘who’s that?’ and he’s done well with us, grandparents, teachers, and classmates. Yay!
Naming people and things in general is a pretty important activity, and it is one we work on almost daily.
That’ll wrap it up for Part 3. More to come! (exactly when depends on whether we ever get over all of our sicknesses around here!)