Signs Of Autism In 3 Year Old Toddlers


Toddlers with autism start to show early discrepancies in their way of interacting with the world around 3 years of age. These young unique learners on the autism spectrum almost always have a poorly functioning sense of themselves, their body parameters and their impact on others. They haven’t yet “individuated” or separated their sense of self from their sense of the environment.

Typically, a young child will do this maturation and individuate themselves from their environment at around two years old. That’s why they say “no” so much. At two, they can comprehend that they are separate from their mother and separate from the environment. The typically developing two-year-old will declare, “No!” because they understand that they are their own person and, as such, they have their own responses to the world and want things their way. “No,” strengthens their ego that is their sense of who they are.

3 year olds with autism, first need to firmly establish their relationship with themselves before significant progress can be made in their relationships with other people. A toddler with a poor sense of self risks missing the developmental stage necessary to develop the foundational understanding of how much space their body occupies. Navigating through a crowded room can be an ordeal!

Consider this parent’s memory of their daughter with autism at 3 years of age:

“Not knowing her body boundaries, Breanna didn’t understand what did and did not belong to her. She picked up everything on her path. She even ate food off other plates as she walked past their table.”

To assist Breanna in experiencing her body as separate from the environment, she needed to know how much space she occupied. Facilitating the recognition of her own physical body boundaries began with compression exercises of the arms, legs and body as well as head hugs.

Using these compression exercises, Breanna’s height, length, and width were emphasized, which helped Breanna experience where she started and ended. Continually knowing and re-asserting one’s body boundaries is very calming for the brain. At the beginning of the day, family members would have Breanna stand up tall and together they would perform head, shoulder, and extremity compression exercises to provide a calming start to the day.

Compression exercises are performed on the arms and legs by using both hands to squeeze the extremity along its entire length. This squeeze is about the same pressure that you might use to squeeze the water from a large sponge with both hands. The compression for the trunk is performed by a softly cupped hand pressing down with about the same pressure you would use to press the water from a sponge sitting on the counter. The head hugs are performed by placing a hand on either side of the head and applying a gentle compression.

In addition, games such as “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” as well as “Simon says” and even an age appropriate and family friendly game of “peek-a-boo” and “hide and go seek” were all activities that promoted a sense of self. Activities with a friend or family member, such as tracing their partner’s full-body outline on huge sheets of paper were repeated at intervals over the toddler years.

Once her parents noticed improved self-awareness in terms of less colliding into people and things, at about the 6-week mark of having started the daily compression (proprioceptive) exercises, the focus was progressed. Following the initial 6 weeks, Breanna’s improved sense of her body through the gentle compression exercise made way for the next priority, and that would be, helping her to understand the space around her.

Knowing how to move and how to “occupy space” is a rudimentary skill necessary for toddlers to function in social environments. Breanna’s parents introduced concepts such as in, over, beside, and under in playing games such as zoo animals strutting in their cage, or circus animals parading. An obstacle course was also very helpful in Breanna’s ability to learn spatial concepts first hand.

To look for signs of autism in a 3-year-old child, you have to view your child’s behavior in relation to other same-age children. Parenting takes on a new paradigm when you have a better understanding of how to help with each stage as your child goes along. This is how we should be parenting all of our children, in general. Ever celebrating moments our children show us how intensely “brain working behavior” behavior promotes acquiring meaningful knowledge about the world around us.


Toddlers with autism spectrum disorder are often able to demonstrate their intelligence in one area, but seem unable to manage themselves in simple tasks.  Many times these young children s need to have things “just right”.  The right clothing, the right volume of speaking, correct lighting, no perfume, and the correct position of the seam in their sock.  Think of it as aligning a kaleidoscope.  Some days it just takes more fiddling.

Unfortunately, for these super‑sensitive kids, it seems that they must have everything line up just right, up to and including the texture of their clothing, the barometric pressure outside (really), the brush used to fix their hair, and the correct amount of elbow space available at the breakfast table, to name a few. (And a few more as the child matures, such as lighting, excessive perfume or room temperature can become equal irritants.)

Often organized behavior and an appropriate display of their intelligence can only occur when these students are in an optimal circumstance.  Again, adjusting and fiddling with the kaleidoscope a little this way and then a little that way…

Think of looking into a kaleidoscope and trying to align the colors and images for a clear and tranquil experience on your eyes. Sometimes, it involves a lot of fussing.  These toddlers have difficulty focusing all of their attention for a clear and tranquil experience of their world. It takes a lot of fussing to align things just right for many of these unique learners. They need help to actively and productively interact in social environments and learn lessons similar to their peers.

If you can suspend your assessment of neither your child’s actions as “good” nor “bad”, you can learn a lot about what is actually happening in their brain and body. I call this “detective mode”. It is the non‑judgmental observation of everything a child does. If you watch patiently, your child will show you what does and does not help them focus and learn.

Detective mode is a shift that parents must make from focusing on and trying to “fix” behavior. At times, parents must become non-judgmental observers. In this way, the parent becomes the student and the child becomes the teacher. In detective mode, you must be a non-judgmental observer who tries to determine what contributes to your child’s calm behavior and what contributes to hyper-excitable outbreaks. Some events and circumstances can calm an individual and others can excite.

Autistic toddlers are sometimes so distracted in a new place they hardly seem to listen. When teaching a toddler with autism a new skill, even if it is throwing a rock at the ocean during an impromptu picnic, start with simple directions and one of the directions being that, “You must try two times, no matter what.”

Reward your child for the first time they throw the rock and acknowledge giving effort, attention and the fun of being together. Reward for the second time by describing something learned from the first effort. You are teaching your child how to learn through trial and error. A very good life skill!

Parents and teachers have taught me that this is how you talk to a child with autism:

“I saw you let that rock go, and then the next time I saw you let it go to make it go way out there.”  Celebrate a little.  Celebrate the thinking behind the act.  This skill will grow in your toddler and serve your child for the rest of their life.


Medicine has not found the cause of autism to be a single factor.  In medical science, there is a lot known that does not cause autism. It is important that parents and family members know that autism is not correlated to parenting style. It’s sad that this even still needs mention. A few decades ago, however, some incorrect assumptions were very critical of the quality of the parent-infant bond. Regretfully, parents were made to feel responsible, somehow.

Even to this day, despite much public pressure, there are still no known environmental or synthetic toxins or any known medicines or vaccines that correlate with the development of autism. Recently, there is some family history indications, but even this evidence seems inconclusive, Autism tends to be a “relational” medical condition and is diagnosed only in relation to the inability to function within society at an age appropriate level.

Keep in mind that the ability to function in society has become increasingly complex. We are all aware that our society is harder to “plug into” than earlier modern and pre‑modern history.  As society has become more complex, day to day functioning is less tolerant of those individual who “dance to the tune of a different drummer”.  For this reason, medical records are unreliable when attempting to compare past population size to current.

What caused my child’s autism? Why does my child have autism? Are both indulgent questions to the parent who is just trying to keep a family happy, healthy and growing with the times. “What caused it” and “Why my child”, are inquiries, like Alice in Wonderland travelling down the rabbit hole, that never come to a satisfactory endpoint. “Now what?” is by far the best question you can ask yourself.

Your child’s autism just might be that blessing we are all in need of. Maybe it’s your child who will look at the problem of top soil erosion from a new perspective and keep our farm lands from sliding into the seas… Just imagine…


As a pediatric occupational and physical therapist for 30 years, parents tell me that they learn how to navigate their child’s sensory system. Well, that’s what they convey. But they have their own way of saying it. In general, the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) more than well understand what causes their child to be too excitable and what causes their child to become too shut down and non-involved.

Well-meaning parents try to smooth things over and help their child act more socially appropriately.  As parents, we are very focused on helping our children interact with friends and enjoy other people.  We forget how complicated it is to be a human in today’s modern society.

Parents of an autistic toddler find themselves explaining to friends and family why their child is under the table rather than playing with others.  Or why their child seems to act so differently. Parents are also well aware that as the child physically matures and becomes stronger, the consequence of their actions takes on greater meaning. Little naughty kicks into the air look different in a 3-year-old versus a 3rd grade child. In 3rd grade, furniture moves when you kick it.

Children with autism respond to many common and everyday occurrences in a surprising manner.  One parent described their child’s inability to anticipate when his mother was near him even with the auditory cues of her feet walking on the floor, or her voice. He acted surprised every time, resulting in fatigue/overload.

Sensory overload can occur when these experiences are repeated and accumulate. Some children do very well with a vigorous game of “peek‑a‑boo” and other children, such as a child with ASD who may not have yet attained the age-appropriate sense of visual and object permanence, will find the game frightening.

For more insight on ASD, I have written Unique Learner Solutions!  You can purchase my book by clicking HERE or




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