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Is Your Toddler’s Obsession a Sign of Autism?

Over and Over Again

If you’re like most toddler parents, you can recite your child’s favorite movie line by line. You’ve probably fought with your child over a toy, or collection of toys, that he insists on taking everywhere you go. And you have his favorite book memorized word for word. Because once a toddler is hooked on something, anything, that’s all they want to do, over and over again. These similar behaviors—obsessing about or fixating on one toy—can be completely normal, or they can be a sign of autism in some children.

“Among the many issues that signaled us that our son was not developing normally was a fixation on toy animals,” says Mike Dawson, a dad from North Kingstown, Rhode Island. “With many autistic kids, it’s trains.”

Dawson says the behavior started at age 2 1/2 with horses, progressed to elephants, and then by age 5 his son was completely manifest in dinosaurs. But with Dawson’s son, the behavior was slightly different than other toddlers’ fixations.

“Most kids show an interest in things, but his interest was exclusive,” Dawson says. “He focused on the animals—he had to hang on to them, he made noises like them. He didn’t make child-like dinosaur noises, but guttural, realistic sounds, which he incorporated into speech and used in response when someone spoke to him. Whenever we tried to go anywhere in the car or on foot, he had to have just the right assortment of these toys, and it was always just a little too much to carry, which inevitably created a tantrum of frustration over needing the objects but not being able to hold them all.”

In the Dawsons’ case, and for many parents, a toddler fixating on a particular toy is one of the many symptoms of autism.

What is Autism?

Autism frightens parents because research has advanced dramatically, bringing the topic to the forefront of attention. And with better knowledge on the condition and its signs, diagnosis, and frequency have increased as well—pulling developmentally disabled people from other diagnosis categories.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it is estimated that an average of one in 110 children in the US have an autism spectrum disorder, and boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.

“Autism is a complicated condition because you can have any range of behaviors, and autism can be very profound,” says Jean Ruttenberg, executive director of the Center for Autism in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and an autistic child’s behavior and abilities will range depending on where he or she falls on that spectrum. Sometimes signs of autism start to present at birth—the child is never affectionate and snuggly, for example—and sometimes the lights just go out on seemingly normal children. The signs can also be hard to discern from many normal toddler behaviors.

The Signs of Autism

“We remember our son was growing and developing like a typical child,” says Katherine Alvarez, a mom from Las Vegas, Nevada. “He was meeting and exceeding his milestones. Around 18 months things changed or I started to notice the changes.”

Alvarez’s son babbled less, and stopped saying the few words he knew. He sometimes appeared deaf, and didn’t respond to other people or loud noises. But when Elmo came on the television, he’d run from the other room to watch. He also started lining up his toys, which seemed normal to the Alvarezes at first.

“I think that all children to some extent do that,” Alvarez says. “However, now looking back he would become very upset if you tried to disrupt his pattern.”

Because the signs of autism can be mistaken for normal toddler behaviors, parents, especially new ones, can overlook them, or justify them.

“The best way it was described to me, when my 2-year-old was going through the evaluations, was this: The behavioral red flags for autism spectrum disorders are the same behaviors exhibited by all typically developing kids,” says Sam Butler, a dad from Seattle, Washington. “The difference is in the packaging and frequency.”

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