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lining up toys

Toddlers Who Line Up Toys

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

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: my second son, 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.)

My first son, 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.)

That said:

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.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Kate F.

    May 19, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    This cracked me up because I *just* told my husband about the “is lining up toys normal” conversation on your blog. We were in Europe on a pre-baby vacation for the last couple weeks and he was basically accosted by a pushy 3-year-old boy who wanted bubbles blown for him in back of an art gallery (the child literally came up, grabbed his hand, and dragged him out to the garden). When I went back to investigate, the little boy was showing off all his matchbox cars, which were carefully lined up in a neat row on the walkway. This was all silent, because he spoke only Gaelic! It really MUST be a developmental stage. (He was a highly directive child! )

  • Emily

    May 19, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Thank you Amy! When I submitted this question, I admit, I was having a master freak-out in my kitchen. I’ve just shot off an email to our case manager requesting some information on a social skills playgroup and just doing that has made me feel so much better (he’s an only child at home with dad during the day and social skills / play could certainly benefit him). For now, I’ll ask our ped next month at the big 2 year visit about the lining up thing and see if we can’t fit in a few more playdates to sooth my nerves. THANK YOU!

  • Karen

    May 19, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    What a great post and I feel like the Least Creative Mother in America today. 🙂

  • Jessy

    May 21, 2010 at 5:51 am

    My four year old son, who is very “normal” and average in almost every way has a thing for lining up cars. He’s done it since around 18 months. He still does it. He used to be more rigid about it, but still gets annoyed and upset if his little sister messes up his “car shows.” He just has an organizing bent in his personality (he does lots of other things like color sorts his legos, etc), and the lining up of stuff fits right in. I wondered about this when he was younger, but there was nothing to worry about. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep an eye on it, but it’s really very possibly nothing. Like everyone is saying I guess. Good luck!

  • Dmom

    May 21, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    My youngest daughter used to line up everything, toys, hair elastics, kid chairs at the children’s museum. All kinds. I don’t recall my oldest daughter doing it really at all, at least not with everything. There was always a purpose to the line though, how else can you pick out the best elastic if you can’t see them all! The row of chairs quickly became a train, or a game of school. What would happen if you asked your son about the line when he’s made it? Are you noticing any paterns in the line (all the blues together, all the reds next, big to small etc.). It doesn’t sound at all like it’s abnormal but the tantrum thing is something to look at. Does he usually throw one if things don’t go his way? Two is a pretty normal age for tantrum’s too. The thing to do is to help him work through it…use your words, etc. The whole thing sounds pretty normal to me, I think you’ll be fine!!!!

  • PartlySunny

    May 22, 2010 at 4:04 am

    Great advice. Emily, I’d just add that depending on your pediatrician, you may end up in early diagnosis-land. Our son (now 7) had problems that sound similar to your son’s and Noah’s (I’d have to go back and read more about Noah to be sure). At 3, he was actually diagnosed as high-functioning autistic/Asperger’s. We ended up going against professional advice and just working with him like crazy. One of the major things we did was to not treat him like a kid who was autistic. By 5 and a half, he tested out of the spectrum. I think there are a ton of kids being labeled as autistic who are just on a different developmental path. Not saying our son didn’t have problems (trust me, he did). But I think we do a huge disservice to a large population of kids by, to some extent, deciding their destiny when they’re so young. And let’s just say that there’s a whole lot of money to be made out there treating kids just like yours. So be careful. Best of luck.

  • Trista

    May 25, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    My son also did this. He was a super intelligent HIGHLY verbal (spoke in complete sentences by the age of two) toddler but also very repetitive. He liked order, wanted the same things to eat, watched the same shows..OVER AND OVER. It was to the point that I started worrying. He lined up cars, army men, trains. A friend of my still jokes about the fact that before he could walk, he’d pair up the shoes we left by the front door if they got kicked out of order. He preferred to play by himself and disliked anyone bothering his stuff. I think that, except for his verbal skills, he probably could have fallen somewhere on the spectrum as a toddler.

    Good news? He’s now a normal/healthy 9 yr old that just happens to like order. Good for me! He keeps his room pretty clean, follows directions completely and is (so far) highly trust worthy. He has tons of friends, makes straight A’s and does really well in school. People often comment that he seems 29 not 9.

    Sometimes, kids that seem odd are just super smart and have NOTHING wrong with them…

  • Saaaaa

    January 29, 2013 at 12:37 am

    You should be happy. All that means is that your child will be great in Math so make sure you get him toys that stimulate his brain and spacial recognition. Nothing else. Make sure he is social with people.

  • Diana

    February 8, 2013 at 2:57 am

    Omg! I really luv the way u respond to everything.thank u.:)I have a two year old boy and he worried me because he lines up cars,stickers and dinosaurs,he gets very upset when I move his toys when he lines them up. He lets me participate sometimes.I bought him some car stickers and only two of them are not cars and he doesn’t like it when I give him the ones that are not cars, he says, no mommy no only cars. He just turned two.He also carrys two toys with him all the time,its woody n Buzz. Is this normal? Its incredible to me cuz one time I caught him in the kitchen with the.bag of uncooked beans n he was lining the little tiny beans.I told one of my uncles about this n he said he might end up being a perfectionist. Dont know?:)

  • Juliet

    May 7, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Get your kid early intervention. It can’t hurt and if you miss out, good luck getting the needed services through the school system. As a mom with three kids on the spectrum — two of who looked “normal” — I can tell you you’ll kick yourselves in the behind later for missing out now. Quit worrying about your kid getting labeled and worry about getting them help.

  • B.Diederich

    March 25, 2014 at 12:07 am

    My grandson that is 4 did this a few years ago and had major fits when something was moved against his wishes. Yet, if you made a line of your own later, while playing WITH him, and did all the vehicle appropriate noises (beep beep! Get outta the way! The bus can’t stop…lightly bump bumpers and laugh or say, I’m passing you by, beep beep! and go to the front of the line), he watched with fascination, and that brought down the tension–we were really afraid for many months…but he eventually loosened up–he is one bright kid! but now my other 22 mo grandson is doing the same thing! We got the Richard Scarry big book of vehicles, which he LOVED, and showed him the big pile-up…now he makes the lines of cars/trucks but arranges them after he’s finished into a big mass pile and is quite proud of his illustration imitation!

  • alexandra

    November 20, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Hi.. my son its 2 and 9m.. his speech is delay and now im worry because he lines the cars. . Im so scared to dont be autist.. his very social and he love the kids he play whit them.. He answer to his name not every time but most of the times. . He can point what he wants.. He have the visual contact.. but im still woried

  • Yashika Anand

    April 5, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    I don’t think lining up things is abnormal. Its one meaning can be that kids are being organized in their playing. They want things to look clean and systematic when they play. Even we adults are maniacs sometimes who want their kitchen and bathroom storage to look proper and organized.

  • Jan

    May 20, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    The description you made about your son Noah is almost exactly like my son Nicolas.
    He is 2 and is on speech therapy. I am seeing his peds again to rule out A.
    One thing also is he like the academics more than the actual play and social communucation i.e. pretend play though he does “feed his animal toys with water”.