The Early Signs: To be Frank…lin
This post has been written by Jo Jordan at Spinning in Circles for Disabled Living’s Story of the Month. She talks about noticing the early signs of autism in her son.
Franklin was a remarkably content toddler, a dream child. For hours he would sit quietly in the corner of the lounge, playing with his cars, happy as Larry. He was the complete opposite from my daughter who always demanded my attention from such a young age; wanting to sit on my knee, wanting cuddles, to be played with, to watch her while she played, to follow her around giving her my absolute undivided attention at all times! It was only when Franklin turned 18 months and the 2 year check was imminent that we started to notice some… quirks.
I knew he was behind developmentally; he wasn’t reaching all of the age appropriate milestones yet, however nor did his sister. She got to every milestone late, in her own time, and now she was flying. Surely Franklin would do the same?
I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of the quirks that in isolation didn’t ring any alarm bells or give us any major cause for concern, but as they developed and grew… well that’s another story.
Franklin was always happy playing by himself in the corner of the room. He liked his own space and to do his own thing. My husband is an only child and he’d say this was just like him as a child. Okay, nothing to worry about here, just a touch of indifference, inherited from his dad.
Then he started nursery and he’d take himself off to a quiet corner by himself. Another child would come near him to play, he’d move away. He didn’t acknowledge the other kids. He had a favourite chair in nursery where he sat pondering most days and on one particular day, another child sat in said chair.
Rather than trying to move them out of ‘his’ chair, Franklin actually sat on top of the child, seemingly oblivious to them being sat there! It was as though he viewed the other children as objects.
From a distance it looks like Franklin plays with his cars like any other child. He adored cars and little figures, but when I started to really, really watch him play, it was different, unconventional. The way he rolled the wheels of the car a lot, around and around. He’d look at it closely, studying it, almost mesmerised by it. Always exploring it with his mouth.
He was very attached to his cars, always clutching them to him. They had to accompany him everywhere including bed and he’d scream blue murder if we tried to take them off him. He just needs something in each hand, always, as a comfort mechanism.
Franklin wasn’t interested in the TV. He never watched any children’s programs or cartoons, ever. I wondered why as every child on the planet went through the In the Night Garden, Peppa Pig, Ben & Holly phase at some point (and let’s be honest what parent isn’t grateful for that 10 minute slot!) but he had zero interest in it.
I tried encouraging him to sit and watch anything for longer than 30 seconds, to entertain him, make him laugh, but my attempts were fruitless, he would get up and walk away. Upsy daisy
Speech wasn’t showing any signs of emerging yet, but as my daughter was a late talker and now rarely shut up, I thought Franklin would follow suit. We were initially concerned he might have difficulty hearing, resulting in numerous hearing tests at the hospital, all completely clear (minus the trauma of getting him in there for the test that is. Let’s just say they won’t forget us in a hurry!).
I always thought Franklin had a ‘happy dance’. He would spontaneously become overexcited (with no clue to the rest of us what about) and start jumping up and down, waving his arms up and down. It was adorable.
When my concerns were snowballing, I remember clearly the day I Googled this and found a YouTube clip of an autistic child ‘flapping’, that’s when I realised it wasn’t quite the happy dance I always thought. Hand flapping is a self-stimulatory repetitive behaviour common in children on the spectrum.
Franklin could do headstands before he was 2 and did so regularly. Against the wall, against the furniture and many attempts off the edge of the sofa when my back was turned! I was always amazed of his bizarre requirement to be upside down, but I never considered it could be a sign of something much much bigger.
Franklin doesn’t point at what he wants – and if I point he doesn’t follow the direction I am pointing at, he just looks at my finger. It’s another indication of his struggle with communication.
Spinning in circles
Another favourite, spinning in circles (hence the blog title!). He loved to spin around giggling to himself. He did it again and again until he was dizzy, closing his eyes while doing so, or looking through the corner of his eye. I’ve since learnt it’s a way for him to seek vestibular sensory stimulation. Franklin has numerous sensory issues and he has an abundance of ways to feed his overwhelming sensory demands.
Franklin always liked his shoes on. He became fixated with wearing his Crocs all the time in the house. When I was researching, tip toeing was common in children with autism. I restricted him wearing his Crocs in the house and what do you know, he liked to walk around a lot on his tiptoes when barefoot. (Just a note on this, I frequently let him wear high cut shoes or ankle boots in the house now as it discourages him walking on his tip toes).
Franklin rarely walks. He runs everywhere. Gallops mainly. Kids always run around, it’s no biggie, but what I didn’t know was he was doing it more out of need than want. He is constantly on the move and also always seeking out deep pressure (being thrown around, swinging about, etc).
This was prominent from early on. He would twist his hair around his fingers, or pull a section of it through two fingers to create a little brush, and he’d rub his other hand against it. It’s a comfort method and it’s sensory, and often a sign he was tired too.
My daughter has been an utter pain with food, she’s only recently been happy to try new foods and she’s 6. A lot of parents struggle to get their toddler to eat a varied diet, and they find a way. Franklin’s diet is carb heavy.
Since being 2 his diet pretty much consists of burnt toast (I’m talking flames – rock hard – no butter), burnt bagels, burnt Yorkshire puddings (let’s not question how I found out about his love of all things burnt!) and breakfast biscuits, that’s basically it. Weetabix protein drinks are a godsend as it allows me to know he has a breakfast when he won’t eat anything.
Random impulsive acts of behaviour were not uncommon. Franklin would be sat quietly contemplating, like he did often, then jump up and throw himself against the sofa for no apparent reason. He’d cry real tears and seem in physical pain. Initially I thought he must have banged his toe or bashed his hand and he couldn’t convey this to me because of his lack of speech, then it started to happen daily, then a few times a day. Even I wasn’t that clumsy… and I have form.
This came later. It didn’t occur until he was 2 1/2. Franklin’s safe place. If he is ever tired, upset, overstimulated, stressed, it’s his go to place. He curls up on all fours, head down and ears covered and rocks repeatedly against the sofa or other surface, back and forth. He makes a humming noise while doing it.
Franklin is essentially self-regulating, blocking everything else out, every sight, sound, until he feels better and all is right with the world again. It’s a brilliant mechanism to have really. I wish I could do it myself when i’m feeling stressed, my liver might appreciate the break.
It is of utmost importance to Franklin to have all the doors closed wherever he is. It’s slightly annoying. More recently there are also an increasing number of objects and toys he has started to want in the ‘correct place’ at home, and it causes him major anxiety if they are not.
Another line… more early signs of autism
The classic – lining things up. This was one of the later quirks, when I was pretty convinced already. It started with cars, then figures, then he became more creative, biscuits were added to the line, often in size order. A line of 15-20 items would often be repeated, from memory, in exactly the same order as a previous day!
In hindsight if this quirk happened first I might have suspected earlier. It’s a classic autism trait. Who knows though, all children with ASD display many different characteristics. It doesn’t really matter if I’d known 6 months earlier or 6 months later though, autism is a part of Franklin, always has been and always will be. It’s what makes him unique. He might flap his wings more than most, but he’s going to fly, I’ll make damn sure of it.
What were the early signs of autism that you discovered? Tell us in the comments box further below. Or contact the Redbank House team with your story via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.