Toddlers Who Line Up Toys
Your column has helped me finagle the first 23 months of my sons life, but now I really need your help. My son — adorable, charming, a ridiculous flirt, climber-extraordinaire, has a speech delay. My husband and I noticed a delay pretty early on, and now he’s been in speech therapy through Early Intervention since February. Yay! And dare I say it, it’s helping. He’s averaging a new word every two weeks or so, and that’s pretty awesome.
But, (you knew that was coming, right?), he’s recently started lining things up. Mostly just blocks and his truck magnets on the fridge, but even so, it’s making my husband and I very nervous. I accidentally knocked a block out of line this weekend while running for the phone, and all hell broke loose. It was awful. If the cat rolls over and moves a block or a Lego half an inch, there’s a giant meltdown and we have to start ALL OVER with the line up. Granted, those are really the only things he’s lining up, and otherwise is a very standard kid: loves bubbles, hugs, kisses, high-fives, and popsicles.
My question is this: how odd is the lining up thing? Is it relatively normal for his age, or might this be indicative of other problems? I worry, 1. because he’s my baby and so I worry about everything, and 2. even though he’s crazy-social, that he’s headed for The Spectrum (which is A-Okay, I just want to get a headstart on EI services if need be). After being thrown into the EI circle and seeing just how long it can take to get services, I want to make sure I’m not missing something and disservicing my son.
Help! (and thankyouthankyouthankyou)
Going from the rest of your description of your son — the stuff other than the Concerning Issue At Hand — I’m gonna say that your son sounds very, very developmentally normal. MANY, MANY toddlers go through a “lining things up” phase. And it’s a good phase, because it’s actually a SKILL. “Which of these things are the same? Which are different?” Kids start differentiating items in more sophisticated ways and grouping them together can honestly just be a little game to them.
Your son starts with recognizing that truck magnets are all truck magnets. He might start ordering them by color next, or by size. Then maybe he’ll decide that construction trucks are a separate category, while magnets depicting vehicles like ice cream trucks or SUVs are something different. This is what typically developing two-year-olds do: they start to really recognize the order of the world and mimic that order through play.
So why, if lining up toys is such a normal toddler trait/habit (which it is), has it gotten bumped to the top of every parents’ Autism Boogeyman checklist? (I admit: Ezra did it and my husband and I nearly passed out from the deja vu.) The difference is (I think, anyway, remember I am not a doctor or an expert) that Spectrum or SPD children sort of…top out at the lining-up level. At some point, that line of cars or “train” needs to go somewhere. The play scenario needs to get a little more involved as the child’s mind moves to simple imitative play (i.e. the cars go beep-beep and around in a circle) and then into complex imaginative play and problem-solving (i.e. the cars drive to the store but oh no! we ran out of gas! what do we do now?).
At 23 months, honestly, your son sounds about where he should be. You give a lot of details that tell me there’s no reason to believe he won’t move past the lining up and into more complex play — particularly how social he is. Social kids (as long he’s also social and engaged with peers, not just adults) pay attention to what’s going on around them, you know? They take it in, process it, and one day completely surprise you by hauling out a set of toy pots and pans, making you a wooden-apple sandwich on a plate, pouring imaginary juice into a cup, and waiting patiently for you to eat it. (Hi Ezra! It was DELICIOUS.)
Noah’s play skills, on the other hand, ultimately became yet another thing that fell into the “severely delayed” category. While I occasionally saw imitative play (he’d feed a doll a bottle), I didn’t see much of it, even by three years old. He’d line up every train he owned neatly on the track…and then not do anything with them. He fought me every time I tried to actually “play” with him and create scenarios where maybe the trains went to pick up people? Or visited the windmill? Anything? He might re-enact one scene from the Thomas TV show that he liked — but just that ONE SCENE, over and over and over again, and any deviation from the script upset him greatly. (Again, I’m talking about Noah as a three- and young four-year-old. Simple, repetitive play from a two-year-old is NOT cause for concern.) When playmates attempted to move into imaginative or pretend play — I’ll “be” this train, you “be” this train, or I’m a pirate and so are you — he panicked because it scared him. He’d roar at other children but if I asked him what kind of dinosaur he was pretending to be, he’d get angry because he wasn’t a dinosaur. And then he’d deal with his anxiety over not really understanding the real/pretend boundaries with lining toys up, thus restoring “order” to the world again.
BUT. Noah is not autistic. There was a time (the time I was just describing, basically), when we were 100% convinced he’d ultimately end up with a PDD-NOS or maybe Asperger’s, but he didn’t. And he’s caught up BEAUTIFULLY, even though his play skills weren’t specifically addressed in therapy until after he turned FOUR. He very rarely lines up toys anymore, and no longer does it with much rigidity — they can make patterns! or no patterns! And he’s VERY imaginative. The lined-up cars are in a race! The red one is going to win! The green one is going to lose. Oh, he’s sad that he lost. I’m tired of this. Let’s play Star Wars. I’m Darth Vader and I’m the BAD GUY! You better run, Mommy! I mean, Princess Leia!
(I believe we owe most of Noah’s progress in this area to the DIR/Floortime model, which is used by his private preschool. Just on the off chance someone out there is trying to decide between similar programs.)
1) Tantrums and freak-outs over disruption of the “line” and the “order” are something to keep an eye on. Again, the fact that he does this does NOT automatically mean you’re headed for a Spectrum or Sensory Processing diagnosis. It could be that your son just…likes order, or just isn’t used to other people and playmates messing with his games and has a low tolerance for it (very common with oldest/only children!). How regular and predictable is his daily schedule? Could it maybe use a little more structure or has something happened recently to change things (i.e. a move, vacation, etc.) and thus he’s feeling a deeper need for order?
2) Pay attention to the line and see if he deviates from his own order or pattern. Is the point simply to line up every block to make a REALLY LONG LINE YAY, and it doesn’t matter what order the blocks are in? Or is there a specific order he’s memorized that he must repeat every single time? (This is easy to figure out: once he’s done with the line, distract him with something in another room, then switch the order of a few different-colored or shaped blocks. See if he notices.) This can help you figure out just how “rigid” he’s being. BUT, AGAIN, if he’s just not that used to playing with other children (or anyone other than Mommy who is easy to predict and generally accommodating to his desires), any upset you witness could still just stem from that. Also, if you notice that he’s designing complex repeating patterns, it could be that he’s just a precocious little smartypants.
3) Encourage him to think beyond the line. Once the magnets are all lined up, ask him WHERE the trucks are going. Are they going to the store? To the garbage dump? Ohhh, I think they’re taking trash to the dump! Here’s the dump (crumpled-up piece of paper, or something)! The dump is HUNGRY. Can that truck feed the hungry dump some YUMMY GARBAGE? See if you can get him to move a truck out of the line (or allow you to) and play along. Yum yum yum yum! That was silly! Don’t get upset if he doesn’t get it at first (or second or third) — just offer up examples of slightly more complex play scenarios for him to absorb whenever you can.
4) Mention it to your doctor ANYWAY. He’s going to have a check-up at 24 months, right? Bring this up, ask your doctor what he/she thinks. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be assured that this is a perfectly normal developmental stage of toddler play. If that happens, awesome, and I hope you’ll believe it. If your pediatrician DOES think something is up and thinks a screening is in order, though, try not to panic. (HA.) (I KNOW.)
5) You’ve already got your foot in the door for EI services; additional and supplemental services will likely not have the excruciating ramp-up time that you originally went through. You seem very, very nervous about this point, all but admitting that you know you’re starting to overreact to things because WHAT IF THIS IS SOMETHING. THIS MIGHT BE SOMETHING. Your son is lining up toys NOW, something many, many toddlers his age (and older) do, without ever demonstrating a single other red flag for autism. And I know that panic — omg, what if we take a “wait and see” approach and it turns out this is Something and we should have had him in therapy three months ago we’ve lost three months that’s an eternity ALL IS LOST. But really, it’s okay. Obviously I don’t know where you live or what the EI program is like, but in our experience: I told Noah’s speech therapist about his toe-walking and my concern over his eating/oral motor issues. She saw a few other things in our sessions that she didn’t really like, gross-motor wise, and arranged to have an occupational therapist come by for an evaluation the next week. The OT amended our family treatment plan that day, Noah started additional services the next week. You have a case manager at EI, right? Call them. Email them. Use them. What other type of evaluations and screenings are available? Is there a social skills playgroup you could join? Could this just be something someone writes down in his file, promising to keep an eye on it, just to relieve YOU of this feeling of being the sole gatekeeper, the one who is “missing” something and thus “dis-servicing” your son?
Once more, with feeling: lining up toys is a perfectly normal thing that perfectly normal-developing toddlers often do. It is not a single sure-fire harbinger of developmental doom. Relax, mama, you’re doing great.