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In Hindsight: Child Development & When Should We Worry?

In Hindsight: Child Development & When Should We Worry?

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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“H” writes:

I’ve been reading for some time now, both on wouldashoulda.com, and recently on Alpha Mom. I really enjoy your writing. Hopefully, you won’t mind me asking some questions regarding young girls and the possibility of being “on the spectrum.” (Aspergers?)

My daughter recently turned five, and I know there is “something” about her, I’m just unsure if it’s “normal” (I hesitate to use that word, but…) or if it something that we should get checked out. I’m wondering how soon you suspected there was the elusive “something” to be concerned about. Here’s a few notes about my daughter which perhaps will trigger the “it didn’t make sense at the time, but…”-reflex:

She is bright, and quite determined to hide it. Some of her greatest fear seems to be to try something and then fail, so to be safe she wont try anything new at all. She can read, but quite cleverly told the teachers from preschool that she couldn’t. That way they didn’t try to give her any books when they went to the library.

She does puzzles, several years advanced from her age group. Sometimes she’ll do them with the white background up. She remembers song lyrics easily, and yes, she will remember that one time you stepped on her toe, two years ago, and it hurt very much and you are a mean mommy. She’ll sometimes quote lines from tv in a conversation to you. Mostly appropriate to the setting, but it tends to lead to a “flowery” conversation. I accidentally splashed some water at her at the pool this summer holiday, and she looked quite shocked at me and said that I needed to rethink the meaning of goodness.

As for stimming, I think the thing that reminds me most of it is her use of the iPad, playing the same songs over and over on YouTube. Right now she’s found some nursery rhymes, so she’s repeating “Humpty Dumpty” and “Five Little Monkeys” over and over again. This is typical for when she’s tired and wants to relax after school. She has memorized the lyrics to these rhymes, so she’ll sing them for herself when she’s bored, or waiting. She’s not a fan of big crowds, and so often while in one it looks like she’s “tuning out” (mumbling for herself, talking about her favorite movies to herself, or singing).

She often exhibits food pickiness. Loud noises frighten her more than it seems they should: Babies crying, sudden bangs, balloons exploding is enough to make her run away. She sometimes spends hours in her room, just to have quiet.

She has stated to the teachers at school that she had both invisible friends and real friends, but she would prefer to play with her real friends, but it was difficult to know what to do. She has a tendency to make some elaborate social role-play, and using the other children as “props” or NPCs in her story. Then she gets really frustrated when the other children gets bored and leave (lots of crying and anger, has a hard time soothing when she gets upset). Other times she’ll just declare that she’s “not playing, just watching”, trying to understand the rules of the game the others are playing.

So, a couple of probably-obvious caveats here before I begin: First, this is not a typical teen-related question of the kind I usually tackle here, obviously, but we felt like the whole hindsight perspective might be useful, so here I am. Second, I am not a doctor or a professional in child development, and every child’s trajectory is different, etc. Let’s all please bear that in mind, because I can only speak to my experience and perspective, and if it’s helpful, great, and if not, that’s fine, too.

Let me start with non-specifics and then we’ll narrow down from there. As a general rule—and I wish I’d figured this out sooner than I ultimately did—my philosophy with any so-called “abnormalities” in my children’s development boils down to a very simple assessment when it comes to deciding whether intervention is necessary. I ask two questions:
1) Is my child lagging behind on developmental milestones?
2) Is my child unhappy?

If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then I think intervention is required. I’d wager that a high percentage of people reading this just had an eye-rolling moment, there, because isn’t that obvious?, and my response to those people is that no, actually, it’s often less obvious than you might think, particularly when it’s your own precious baby. For example: Many children learn to read in kindergarten, but not all. Many children talk a lot at age 2, but not all. Some of those “behind” kids are on a different curve and still normal. Sometimes it’s hard to know when development is truly off or is still within the range of “don’t worry,” and that’s when outside consultation is needed. Furthermore, some “quirky” kids are perfectly content being different, and in some of those cases I think parents fret a lot more about those differences than is maybe necessary. On the other hand, if a child is unhappy due to those differences, at the very least you want to be investigating avenues towards greater self-acceptance, if not actual change.

With my own children, I can unfortunately confirm that it was their unhappiness that sent us looking for help, in the beginning. My son was always Mr. Sunshine right up until he wasn’t, meaning that as a small child he was either delighted or furious, with very little in-between. His intolerance for change or imperfection (and certain textures, sounds, smells, etc.) is what sparked our investigation into his differences, and he was first diagnosed with a Sensory Processing Disorder, and later, as being on the Autism Spectrum. There’s a small part of me that still wishes we’d known about the ASD earlier—I am nothing if not the queen of woulda, coulda, shoulda, after all—but I’m not sure what difference it really wouldn’t made, other than that I spent several ignorant years not realizing that a my kid’s flavor of autism is something that exists. (In retrospect, I think the myth of “autistic kids don’t make eye contact or like to be touched” delayed his eventual diagnosis.)

My daughter, on the other hand, had a cluster of issues which were, shall we say, less pronounced than her brother’s, and we sought help for them in the sense that she was unhappy and we wanted to change that, but it wasn’t until nearly high school (and some real crises) that anyone thought to ask if maybe she had a developmental disorder of some kind. I try to go with the “regret is a useless emotion” philosophy, but I’m not going to lie: I wish we’d known a lot of things sooner, with her. I will always wonder if we might’ve headed off some very difficult times. But hey, now we know, and the more we know, the better things get. Also, I’ve now become a huge proponent of sharing information about how yes, Virginia, autism spectrum disorders in females often manifest very differently and we are doing a huge disservice to a lot of struggling girls and women in not recognizing these needs sooner.

All of that said, let’s get back to your daughter. Something is different with her, and you know this because she is delightful, but also fearful, perfectionistic, rigid, and prone to emotional meltdown. You have answered the “Is my child unhappy?” question with “Yes.” So that means investigation into what’s going on here is a good idea.

Does it sound like an autism spectrum disorder to me? Maybe. I mean, yes, it sounds a lot like what I experienced with my own children, so of course it does. But this is where we turn to the real professionals, because there are many, many issues which share features, and we as laypeople may not be able to tease apart what’s being caused by what and arrive at a cohesive picture. Some of what you’re describing is what I’d call “typical Aspie.” Some of what you’re describing also fits “generalized anxiety” or “ADHD inattentive type” or “sensory processing difficulty.” All of these things are possible. I know you’re not in the U.S., so I’m unsure what sorts of services might be available to you, but here we started with a (free) evaluation through the kids’ school, as well as individual therapy. You want to find a professional in child development who can do an assessment and help you figure out how to help your daughter keep being her awesome self, not with less quirkiness, but with less unhappiness.

That brings me to a final point I want to make, and it may seem a little crazy when you’re dealing with a 5-year-old, but just tuck it away for later, if you will: Don’t forget the two questions as she grows up. I went through a period with both of my teens, at different times, where I was worried about them for not being like their peers in various ways. In both cases, I eventually caught myself, asked if there was a developmental problem (no) or if the “worrisome” behavior was making them unhappy (no), and realized this was my own baggage. My son is probably always going to require a lot of alone time, because that’s how his brain works, and if he’s not unhappy, I don’t need to worry about it. My daughter is probably always going to approach her schoolwork in a way that drives me insane, but if she isn’t unhappy and gets it done, I don’t need to worry about it. I worry when they’re unhappy. More and more, I don’t worry when they’re different. Because they are different, and that’s fine.

Best of luck, H. You sound very tuned in to your daughter’s needs, and I’m sure you’ll find the best way to support her as she grows up.

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Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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[…] at Alpha Mom I’m offering up some thoughts on knowing when to suspect autism spectrum disorders in your small child, now that I have the luxury vantage point of my kids being nearly grown. On the one hand, I’m […]

Brenda
Guest
Brenda

I appreciate how you always seem to balance “Here’s MY experience, and here’s now it MIGHT apply to you” with “I’m not a professional, so seeing someone with credentials can be a great idea.” I think that’s a great way to dispense advice.

IrishCream
Guest
IrishCream

I don’t have much experience with ASD, and of course I view this through the lens of my own personal experience. My first thought was that she sounds like a very bright kid, or at least a precocious one, and that can make navigating a five-year-old’s world challenging. She might be recognizing that she’s different from her peers, and be having a hard time relating to them; it sounds like her style of play is hard for other kids to keep up with. With precocious kids, it’s easy to confuse their mental age with their emotional age, and hold them… Read more »

Melinda
Guest
Melinda

Hello! A lot of these behaviors are normal for gifted children- and from your description your daughter IS gifted. (I’m a former teacher with an emphasis in gifted ed). Your typical gifted child has anxiety, prefers to be in control & have things their way, can be argumentative & against authority. That being said, there is no reason your child can’t be twice exceptional. You’re the parent- people try to make you “feel better” by calling things typical/normal when perhaps they aren’t- you know your child. If you’re concerned enough to write this, there’s probably SOMETHING going on. Anyway, here’s… Read more »

Jenny O
Guest
Jenny O

THIS. I was reading the post and thinking, “Heck, she sounds like a Gifted kid to me.” That being said, Gifted kids ALSO require some specialized attention to thrive- that’s why there are Gifted Programs. All in all, I’d say talk to a child development specialist if for no other reason than to ease your own mind. Good luck!

kim
Guest
kim

Yes, I was also wondering about the gifted aspect. For a while my (gifted) boys attended a private school for gifted kids. It was like the Island of Misfit Toys (but in a really wonderful way. Several of the students were likely 2e, but most of these superbright kids were generally pretty quirky, so it was hard to tell. It was there, though, that I developed my personal theory about their being a very fuzzy line between a highly/profoundly gifted child and a child who might be categorized as having very high functioning autism. Indeed, there are professionals who write… Read more »

KIm too
Guest
KIm too

Spot on, Mir, as usual.  I know the “unhappy”part is what has driven me to get diagnoses for my ADHD-inattentive girls, and seeing a specialist uncovered the anxiety issues my 5yo is having. (And, as is turning out to be typical for me, it turns out I’m dealing with those, too.  These kids, they teach you a lot.) My daughter has a friend who is also smart as all get out, and loud, and often can’t get his schoolwork done because of focus issues.  She waited until this year to talk to a professional about his issues, just because he… Read more »

Jessica
Guest

So nailed it. I agree completely, and both my kids had very early diagnoses. The line between traits that overlap with autism and autism is so very fine. I expect nothing less than perfection from you, Mir, and you always deliver. (I know how much you enjoy the pressure of expectations.)

H
Guest
H

Wow, thanks for writing Mir, and thanks to everyone who has been writing comments. I really appreciate it.

For me “figure out how to help your daughter keep being her awesome self, not with less quirkiness, but with less unhappiness” really hit a nerve. I’ll check into the link Melinda provided, and have a discussion with the teachers.

Elliesee
Guest
Elliesee

I am curious, I remember reading on your blog that you thought your daughter had faked autism during testing. Did you think that or I misread?

K
Guest
K

That quote about “rethinking the meaning of goodness” made my day. I only wish I could be that witty. 

Brenda
Guest
Brenda

If you are concerned, you can get her evaluated by either a child psychiatrist, or a pediatrician with the developmental fellowship training.

TC
Guest

I want to kind of emphasize the OR in your two-point spot-on set of criteria for pursuing a diagnosis. I think that INITIAL diagnoses can be critical even if your kid is NOT unhappy, and particularly if their developmental differences are pronounced enough that you will need any real kind of help from the school system you are in. And for that, the sooner the better, even for a happy kid. Also because–ironically enough–kids whose differences are different from the ‘normal differences’ (I call my son the triangular peg, since he’s different enough from the square pegs being pounded into… Read more »