One of the hardest things about being a parent of an only and autistic child is that I am constantly wondering if a certain behavior is typical of toddler or autism. It’s a game I play everyday. Sometimes the constant wondering drives me a little crazy.
Since Connor is an only child I don’t have anything to compare him to. I don’t have a baseline for “normal” behavior. I can read an endless number of expert articles, parenting books, mommy message boards and come away with only a vague sense of what is typical for his age. But the problem is that “normal” varies so wildly that even that is an imperfect measurement.
The flip side of this is that autistic behavior can also vary wildly within its parameters. What’s true for some children, is not always true for others. This is why most autistic children are given the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There are so many variables in diagnosing ASD that one cannot simply point to a test or a specific behavior and say, aha! He’s autistic! Instead it’s diagnosed by gathering information and seeing if a child meets a minimum number of symptoms within the larger spectrum of symptoms.
For example, Connor doesn’t display many of the physical manifestations of autism. There’s no arm flapping or “happy” feet. There’s no self-injurious hitting when upset or head banging. But the fact that these things don’t exist for Connor in no way signifies that he doesn’t meet the autistic standard. He displays typical autistic behaviors of eye-contact avoidance, speech delays, inability to regulate his emotions, etc.
Sometimes autism seems like a grab bag of symptoms, each child sprinkled with a few from the spectrum, different from everyone else, dealing with their own unique set of issues.
In that way though autistic children aren’t too different from average children; it’s just ASD issues are easier to identify. An average child might struggle with math or have performance anxiety on tests or lack the upper body strength to climb a gym class rope. She might hate dolls and dresses and long to shoot baskets but feels pressure to be “girly”. He might hate car racing and football, desiring time alone to draw or paint instead, but feels the pressure to fit in. Each child comes with their own set of idiosyncrasies, and must learn to navigate the world within their scope. In this way, all children are alike.
So as I try to decide if Connor’s delay in potty training is typical of many toddler boys or ASD, I decide I’m not going to worry about it. It’ll happen when it happens. There’s not much I can do to change it whether it’s typical toddler-hood or ASD! It is what it is.
I can’t always do this, of course, there are some issues that are glaringly ASD (ex. throwing himself on the ground every time he tantrums) and others that are typical of toddlers everywhere (ex. demanding a cookie before dinner). In those examples it doesn’t really matter which one is an example of which since they are both unacceptable!
Well, I guess at the end of the day, I just have to identify what is acceptable and what isn’t, rather than worrying about categorizing things as one thing or another. What really matters is whether my child is healthy, happy, and thriving.
And whether Connor’s desire to dress up as Max and have frozen yogurt is ASD or typical toddler, I really don’t care ’cause it’s just really freaking cute!