Common Behaviors Observed in Autistic Toddlers

Discover the common behaviors in autistic toddlers and practical strategies to support their unique needs.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 11, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism in Toddlers

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts a person's social interactions, communication skills, and behavior. When it comes to toddlers, certain signs and behaviors can be indicative of autism. As a parent or caregiver, understanding these signs can help in early diagnosis and intervention.

Early Signs of Autism

One of the common things autistic toddlers do is engage in repetitive behaviors, also known as "stimming". This can take the form of flapping arms, spinning objects, or repeating certain words or phrases. These behaviors serve the purpose of self-regulating or stimulating themselves, helping reduce anxiety, relieve discomfort, or avoid sensory overload.

Another sign can be an intense interest in certain topics or activities. Autistic toddlers might display narrow interests, such as lining up objects or focusing intensely on a specific topic. This is often coupled with difficulties in social interactions and communication, making them less likely to participate in partnered or group play like neurotypical toddlers.

Early Signs of Autism Examples
Repetitive behaviors Flapping arms, spinning objects, repeating words or phrases
Intense interests Focusing intensely on a topic, lining up objects
Social interaction difficulties Less likely to participate in group play

Autism and Sensory Sensitivities

Sensory sensitivities are a significant component of autism. Autistic toddlers often display hyperreactivity or hyporeactivity to sensory input. Hyperreactivity refers to an overreaction to sensory stimuli, such as being overwhelmed by a loud noise or a bright light. On the other hand, hyporeactivity refers to an underreaction, where the toddler may not respond to stimuli that would typically attract attention.

These sensory sensitivities can influence the behaviors and activities of autistic toddlers. For example, a toddler might engage in stimming behaviors to avoid sensory overload or to relieve discomfort.

Understanding these behaviors and sensitivities can provide valuable insights into the world of autistic toddlers and help caregivers provide the support and understanding they need.

Typical Behaviors in Autistic Toddlers

Understanding the typical behaviors in autistic toddlers can provide insight into their unique world. From repetitive actions to distinctive play habits, these behaviors are some of the things autistic toddlers do that differentiate them from their neurotypical peers.

Repetitive Behaviors in Autism

A common behavior observed in autistic toddlers is the engagement in repetitive behaviors. This might manifest as flapping arms, spinning objects, or repeating certain words or phrases. Some toddlers might display behaviors such as hand-flapping or body rocking, while others may show intense interests in particular topics or activities. This includes lining up objects or focusing intensely on a specific subject.

Repetitive behaviors in autistic toddlers often serve the purpose of self-regulation or stimulation, a process commonly referred to as "stimming." These activities help reduce anxiety, relieve discomfort, or avoid sensory overload, providing a sense of comfort and control to the child [1].

Play and Autism

The way autistic toddlers engage in play is another characteristic behavior. Unlike neurotypical toddlers who often progress from solitary play to partnered or group play, autistic toddlers generally do not advance in the same manner. They may have difficulty sharing and often engage in activities that only serve the purpose of self-regulating or stimulating themselves.

This can involve playing with a particular toy or object repetitively, focusing intensely on a single activity, or engaging in sensory play. Autistic toddlers may also show less interest in imaginative play, often preferring predictable and structured play activities over ones that involve role-playing or make-believe [1].

These behaviors, while common in autistic toddlers, can vary widely from child to child. Understanding these typical behaviors can help caregivers, educators, and healthcare providers better support the child's development and individual needs.

Autism and Communication Challenges

One of the most common challenges associated with autism is difficulty in communication. This can manifest in both verbal and nonverbal ways, and can significantly impact an autistic toddler's ability to express themselves and interact with others.

Verbal Communication Challenges

Autistic toddlers often face difficulties with verbal communication. These challenges can include a delay in developing speaking skills, not using language in a typical way, or even not speaking at all. Some toddlers may repeat certain words or phrases they hear, a behavior known as echolalia. Others may have a vast vocabulary about a specific topic of interest but struggle with everyday conversation.

A key part of the things autistic toddlers do involves engaging in repetitive behaviors, including verbal ones. For instance, they might repeat certain words or phrases frequently or in specific patterns. This is often a part of the self-stimulating or "stimming" behaviors that many autistic toddlers exhibit, which can serve to reduce anxiety or discomfort.

Nonverbal Communication Cues

In addition to verbal communication challenges, autistic toddlers also often struggle with nonverbal communication. This can include difficulties understanding and using gestures, facial expressions, and body language. They might not make eye contact as often as other toddlers, or they might use gestures and expressions that are hard to understand.

Nonverbal communication plays a crucial role in social interactions, and difficulties in this area can make it hard for autistic toddlers to connect with others. They might not respond when their name is called, or they might not follow along with actions or expressions that other people use.

Understanding these communication challenges is essential for supporting autistic toddlers. Through strategies like speech therapy, play-based learning, and patient, supportive interaction, parents and caregivers can help autistic toddlers to develop and improve their communication skills. This is a key part of supporting their overall development and well-being.

Sensory Issues in Autistic Toddlers

Understanding sensory issues is crucial when exploring the behaviors that autistic toddlers exhibit. These sensory issues can manifest in two significant ways: hyperreactivity and hyporeactivity. These terms refer to situations where autistic toddlers have heightened or reduced responses to sensory stimuli, respectively.

Hyperreactivity in Autism

Hyperreactivity is a common sensory issue among autistic toddlers. It refers to a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, which often results in discomfort or distress. This sensitivity could extend to sounds, lights, reflections, textures, or other environmental cues, even those not immediately noticeable to others.

For example, a child with hyperreactivity might be distressed by the hum of a refrigerator or the feel of a certain fabric against their skin. They may also carry favorite objects with them, which can provide comfort or help them stay calm. Attempting to take away these objects may result in an agitated response, and it may be beneficial to let them keep these items as long as they are not harmful.

Hyporeactivity in Autism

On the other hand, hyporeactivity refers to a reduced or absent response to sensory stimuli. Autistic toddlers with hyporeactivity may seem unaware of their surroundings, even when in potentially dangerous conditions. For example, they might walk or stand in the street without apparent concern for the traffic around them.

In addition, autistic children might be less aware of pain, not reacting to painful experiences others might find distressing. It is advised to be mindful of this and take necessary steps to ensure their safety.

In conclusion, sensory issues are a central part of the experiences of autistic toddlers. Understanding and accommodating these sensory sensitivities can be a crucial part of supporting autistic individuals and recognizing the unique things they do.

Strategies to Support Autistic Toddlers

Supporting toddlers with autism requires patience, understanding, and the implementation of specific strategies to assist with their unique needs. These strategies can include encouraging communication, managing sensory challenges, and creating a consistent environment.

Encouraging Communication

Communication can often be a challenge for toddlers with autism. However, there are several strategies that can be used to encourage communication in these children. One recommended approach is to work gradually on communication skills by teaching one step at a time. This allows for the child to build a strong foundation in communication while minimizing feelings of overwhelm [6].

Observing the child's attempts to communicate is also vital. It's important to pay attention to nonverbal cues and respond to them accordingly. Labeling items around the house can help the child associate words with objects, enhancing their understanding and use of language.

Lastly, seeking support from speech pathologists or autism professionals can be beneficial. These professionals can provide tailored strategies and techniques that align with the child's individual needs.

Managing Sensory Challenges

Toddlers with autism often experience sensory challenges, which can affect their interactions and responses to their environment. Occupational therapists and behavior therapists can assist in helping these children navigate their sensory challenges and develop strategies to meet their sensory needs.

These professionals can introduce sensory-based interventions, such as sensory integration therapy, that aim to help the child respond appropriately to sensory stimuli. Additionally, they can provide guidance on creating a sensory-friendly environment at home and using sensory tools, such as weighted blankets or fidget toys, to support sensory regulation.

Creating a Consistent Environment

Consistency is key when it comes to supporting autistic toddlers. Consistency in therapy techniques and interactions can reinforce learning and improve behavior. It also helps the child to understand what to expect, reducing anxiety and promoting a sense of security.

Creating a consistent schedule for meals, therapy, school, and bedtime is also beneficial. This routine provides structure and helps the child to navigate their day more easily.

In addition, positive reinforcement through rewards and praise for good behavior can be highly effective in encouraging desired behavior. This approach highlights the behaviors you want to see more of, helping the child to understand and replicate these behaviors in the future [8].

By implementing these strategies, caregivers can provide supportive environments that cater to the unique needs of autistic toddlers, enhancing their communication, managing sensory challenges, and promoting consistent behaviors.








steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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