10 Childhood Autism Traits
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which is present from birth. You can’t catch it, it doesn’t grow out of nowhere, although it might become more visible as the autistic person grows older. If you pursue a medical diagnosis, there is a huge emphasis on childhood behaviour, and how your autism might have presented itself.
Being a late-diagnosed autistic doesn’t mean I just ‘developed’ autism at the age of 25. I was born with it; and unbeknownst to me, I had been exhibiting signs of autism all my life. Looking back, I am now able to dissect my past, and understand which behaviours might have been influenced by being autistic. So, here are 10 childhood traits I didn’t know were autism:
Autistic Childhood Trait #1 – Nail Biting
I remember the adults around me going crazy trying to stop me biting my nails.”It’s bad for you”, “I’ll put bad-tasting polish on them”, “you won’t be able to paint them for parties”… I heard it all. But despite their best efforts, I still bite my nails now, and have never once mourned my lack of nail varnish.
I found out later that nail biting is a form of oral stimming. Perhaps this is where we get the idea that people bite their nails when they are nervous; a key purpose of stimming is to regulate emotion, including anxiety and distress. Not that I reserve nail-biting for when I’m anxious; I do it instinctively, no matter how I feel.
Autistic Childhood Trait #2 – Being ‘The Shy Kid’
I was that kid who had to have a parent stay with them in playgroup; who would only ever speak to the teachers; who dreaded being paired up with a stranger for groupwork.
My social anxiety and communication differences were present from a young age if you looked closely enough, although I didn’t even hear the term ‘social anxiety’ until secondary school. Moreover, because I was very articulate, nobody thought to question my communication skills.
I never grew out of being the shy kid. Nowadays, I do what every good introvert does, and use my chattier friends to communicate for me.
Autistic Childhood Trait #3 – Doodling
It annoyed me no end when I actually had to record a piece of homework or a parents’ evening in my school planner, and ruin my sea of gel pen flowers and fairies and spiders’ webs. Every blank sheet of paper I laid my hands on was soon littered with drawings, and if I didn’t have paper, I used my hands (yes, ink poisoning, I know).
Like many neurodivergent people, doing something with my hands helped me to concentrate; and despite being told off by some closed-minded teachers, I ended up putting my doodling to good use as I grew older. I got an A* in my art GCSE, I drew intricate mind maps for my A Level revision, and I even daydreamed about becoming a tattoo artist (shame that would require me to actually leave my house).
Now that I know I’m autistic, I’d like to go back in time and tell the teachers who stopped me doodling that they were actually hindering my focus, not helping it. As well as concentration, I think a huge driving force behind my need to draw was my vivid neurodivergent imagination. I may have been sitting in a damp, dull classroom, but I had entire worlds leaking out of my brain and onto the page before me.
Autistic Childhood Trait #4 – Holiday Burnout
I liked school; I liked the routine, the consistency, and the lessons which suited my academic little brain. I rarely missed a day. However, every half term and holiday without fail, I’d come down with some sort of head cold or stomach bug, or even just a ragingly bad mood. My parents called it ‘End of Term-Itus’. Adult, autistic me calls it ‘burnout’.
I liked school; but school didn’t always like me. I could never do any less than my best- as in, I didn’t have a mechanism that allowed for ‘just doing my homework’ as opposed to pouring my heart and soul into my homework- and this combined with the social pressure of dealing with my peers every day really took its toll. Sometimes the time off actually made things worse, especially at Christmas, an event which many autistic people struggle with (another topic for another day).
So if you have a child who always seems to come down with something during half term- or if you are or were that child- try pencilling in some downtime. A good film day can do wonders; and a few preemptive breaks during term time could also make the world of difference.
Autistic Childhood Trait #5 – Outfit Repeating
I remember years and events by whatever clothing phase I was going through at the time. 2006 was the year I wore a washed-out denim jacket in all weathers, and 2008 was the year of the knee-length stripey sock. In year 5, I would categorically only wear skirts to school; in year 6, it was nothing but trousers. I would latch onto a style or article of clothing, wear it every day like a cartoon character, and then abandon it forever.
Whilst many children go through phases like this, being intensely attached to clothing (and other objects) is an autistic trait which I still carry to this day. It can be great to have such a strong sense of style; but it can also become an issue if we are unwilling- or unable- to adapt our clothing for things like the weather.
Autistic Childhood Trait #6 – Throat Clearing
To an outsider, it must have seemed like I grew up with a perpetual cold. I was always being told to stop clearing my throat and ‘just cough properly’, but for some reason I always found myself slipping back into my croaky little habits.
At the time, I remember feeling an intense shame and self-consciousness around coughing. It made everyone look at you in class and assembly; and this social pressure to ‘fit in’, and hatred of feeling observed in any way, can indeed be traced back to autism. But there was also this weird physical compulsion; I had to clear my throat, and I had to do it a certain number of times before I could stop. Like nail-biting, this is a form of stimming, and can help to regulate an autistic person’s emotions.
I actually thought I’d grown out of throat clearing, until I saw it written in the notes for my autism assessment. It seems I croaked my way right into a diagnosis.
Autistic Childhood Trait #7 – Sugar Rush
I was that friend that only had to sniff a Haribo Tangfastic to bring the entire sleepover crashing down around us. As a child, I was hugely susceptible to the effects of sugar and caffeine; and when I got older, I became that friend who was a raging liability on a night out, because of how quickly I could get drunk.
Though the reasons why are still up for debate, it is largely believed that autistic people can be affected far more strongly by the substances we consume. My sister Emily had to have an entire culinary overhaul to remove additives, because of how significantly her diet was affecting her behaviour. This change in diet was the reason she was taken back off the autism waiting list as a child; because an accommodation made things better, so there no longer appeared to be a problem.
Autistic Childhood Trait #8 – Hair Chewing
My mother might as well have had the words “get your hair out of your mouth” tattooed across her forehead. I grew up with thick, waist-length hair, most of which ended up in my mouth at some point or other. I was gently reminded, sternly scolded, and presented with cautionary tales of people who had to get literal hair balls surgically removed from their stomachs, but to no avail. Once again, this is a case of oral stimming.
Unlike the nail-biting, I seemed to grow out of this one naturally. Nowadays if my hair goes anywhere near my mouth, the whiff of hair products is enough to make me swat it away without a second thought.
Autistic Childhood Trait #9 – Living in a Fantasy
If this one takes you by surprise, then you’re not alone. Our media is saturated with autistic people who love maths and science and train timetables, and there I was scribbling a new story in every blank notebook I laid my hands upon. A ‘special interest’ is a phenomenon whereby an autistic person becomes very invested in a hobby, topic or ‘thing’, and I certainly became invested in my fantasy worlds. Celtic druid, mediaeval outlaw, pirate; I was all of these things, at one time or another. You could not have convinced me differently.
Contrary to the stereotype, it is not the nature of an interest, but the intensity, that might indicate autism. A child spending four hours pouring over a book in their room, forgetting to drink or go to the toilet or speak to their family, could potentially be an indication of autism; whether that book is about physics or fairies.
Autistic Childhood Trait #10 – Eating Leaves
Ah, the icing on the cake. This one is just exactly as it sounds; my best friend and I made it our mission to try all the different leaves in and around our primary school, and see how they compared.
I think this trait has really the trifecta of sensory, categorising and social influences. We would search for, examine and taste the leaves, before meticulously recording (verbally if not on paper) their distinctive qualities, how they compared to oak leaves, dandelion leaves, grass, etc. I do wonder if, by this point, I’d begun to regard myself as a bit of an outsider. I knew that eating leaves was strange, I knew what my peers would say if they found out. I’ve always leaned into my oddball status, perhaps as a way of stepping out of victimhood and taking ownership. You think I’m a weirdo? Good. I want to be.
Eventually our teachers put a stop to our antics, which, having worked in primary schools myself, I totally understand. Nevertheless, I imagine we’d have grown out of it eventually. Eating non-edible things- or ‘pica’- is actually a common symptom of autism, and most of us live to tell the tale. If you’re worried about your autistic child’s unusual habits, know that there is every chance they will leave them behind as they grow up; and that unless the habit is immediately harmful, it’s probably best to just leave them to it.
FYI, the middle of a daisy tastes awful, but the petals are fine. Just in case you were wondering.
Autism in Childhood – Summary
For a late-diagnosed autistic person, looking back and spotting autistic traits from before your diagnosis can be a life-long task. It ranges from joyful, to funny, to relieving, to upsetting; but no matter how you feel about it, there’s no turning away from the fact that all autistic adults were once autistic children.
It’s called the autism spectrum for a reason; my profile as an autistic child can look totally different to anothers’, and even my own autistic siblings were (and still are) vastly different from me growing up. That being said, if you or your child exhibit (or exhibited) traits like this, it might be worth exploring the topic of autism. Personally, I wish I’d known earlier that I was autistic; it would have made an enormous difference to my self-perception. And remember, autism isn’t bad- it’s just different.