Scenes from an Autistic Childhood

Through the magic of old home movies (actually DVD transfers of grainy super 8 footage), I’ve been able to study bits of my childhood, looking for typical early childhood signs of autism.

Hindsight is not only 20/20 it’s very entertaining. I decided to liveblog scenes from my autistic childhood, so you can share in the fun.

Let’s go back in time . . .

DVD #1: The Early Years

Through most of the first disc I look like an average baby and toddler. Maybe a little hard to engage at times. I’m often staring intently at something off camera. I’m interested in objects as much as people. Give me a baby doll and I’ll probably hug her. Or wield her like a club. It’s a toss up.

I’m not the most expressive baby. I more often look panicked or confused or grumpy than happy. Hmmm, when I do look happy it tends to be the shrieking, hand flapping sort of happiness.

Then this happens:

My dad is on the floor in front of me, just outside the cropped frames. At first he’s making noises and I’m laughing. After a few seconds of that, I look up toward the camera, suddenly oblivious to him. Frustrated, my dad puts his hand between me and the camera. Note the unchanged expression on my face before and after. He shakes my shoulder, tickles me, calls me, tries the hand thing a couple more times. Nothing seems to get through to me. I’m still staring at whatever’s caught my attention when the frame goes dark.

Doesn’t respond to his or her name or to the sound of a familiar voice.

Soon I see more clues:

51:55 – I’d rather sit and bounce on my ball than throw or kick it.

53:01 – The first of many shots of me happily swinging on my backyard swing set.

54.35 – I’m intensely interested in hammering nails into a piece of scrap wood. With a real hammer! There’s an entire reel of hammering. Perseveration R Us.

58:38 – A little hand flapping for the goats at the petting zoo.

1:04:14 –  Here I am getting a haircut. I loved going to the hairdresser because it meant I got to play with the rollers and hair clips. And by play with, I mean sort by size and color.

Doesn’t play “pretend” games, engage in group games, imitate others, or use toys in creative ways.

DVD #2: Vacation!

Being away from home causes me to stim nearly nonstop. In the first twenty minutes, I’m 3 to 4 years old and still an only child. I wonder if being the first child–with no siblings to compare my behavior to–makes my autistic traits less obvious to my parents.

3:40 – Here I am rocking back and forth in my stroller at Santa’s Land.

5:21 – My parents prompt me to wave to the camera. Again. I rarely wave unless they tell me to.

Uses few or no gestures (e.g., does not wave goodbye)

8:12 – An entire reel of me sitting beside my inflatable pool, washing the grass off my feet. I’m still doing it when the camera shuts off. I seriously did not like having grass stuck to my feet. Or grass in my pool.

9:40 – Happily swinging on a porch swing.

9:52 – Really happily swinging on a chain link fence. Okay, more like happily full body slamming the chain link fence.

Flaps their hands, rocks their body, or spins in circles

10:39 – Staring intently at an animatronic display. So intently that I have my face pressed flat up against the glass.

11:40 – Swinging on a glider. A disproportionate amount of these movies are of me swinging on things.

11:55 – Stimming with Santa! Here’s how my 4-year-old visit with Santa goes: I get on his lap. I sit facing away from him and never once look at him. I fiddle with the candy cane wrapper in my hand, examining it like it’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. Santa says something to me. I pretend he doesn’t exist. I fidget with the wrapper some more. Santa says something and waves at the camera. I enter a state of serene bliss in which nothing exists but the wrapper. Santa waves some more. Santa tries to take away my candy cane wrapper. The screen abruptly goes dark.

Exhibits poor eye contact

12:42 – More rocking, this time while posing in front of a statue of a giant pig.

12:56 –  More intense staring at animatronic gnomes.They’re rocking gnomes. I love them. In fact, I love them so much, I’m rocking in time with them.

13:20 – More staring. This time at dwarves.

14:18 – Here I am rubbing Humpty-Dumpty’s egg-shaped body. Over and over again, my parents pose me on or next to something and I immediately start rubbing my thumb or palm over the closest surface.

Engages in repetitive gestures or behaviors like touching objects

15:49 – Swinging from the rope of the school bell in an old fashioned schoolhouse.

16:32 – Bouncing up and down with the White Mountains in the background.

You get the idea. Ten more minutes of vacation footage and I’m constantly in motion. Bouncing, rocking, fidgeting with my windbreaker zipper, kicking my feet, flexing my knees, jiggling my feet, rubbing surfaces, hand flapping.

Moves constantly

I’m thinking it’s time to shut the DVD off, assuming I’ve made my point, when I see my sister do something I haven’t done once in more than 90 minutes of video: she points. She’s about a year old, and she’s pointing at the petting zoo animals. That’s when it hits me. I have one of the classic early childhood autism symptoms–a failure to point at objects.

Doesn’t point, wave goodbye or use other gestures to communicate

Soon we’re at Disney World with a family friend. She and my sister point again and again at things they’re excited about. I don’t point at anything. Not once.

30:06 – I’m about six here and I’ve learned to wave at the camera without being reminded. I’m riding on a carousel and wave at the camera every single time I go by. Yep, I’ve got the waving thing down good.

35:36  – We’re at Gettysburg. I’m around seven years old. My mother and sister are posing by a canon, waving at the camera, chatting away. I’m climbing on the canon, rubbing the canon, pretending to ride on the canon, paying no attention to them or the camera.

Appears disinterested or unaware of other people or what’s going on around them

It’s interesting to see footage of my sister and I at similar ages. I see how much more likely she was to engage with the camera, to wave spontaneously, to be smiling or talking or paying attention to the people around her.

I also see that I took a lot of cues from her. She’s four years younger, but at times–like when we’re interacting with characters at Disney World–I’m obviously watching her and following her lead.

And now that I’m no longer the sole focus of the camera’s attention, I’m a lot more likely to just wander out of the frame.

DVD #3: A Slew of Holidays with a Dash of Empathy on the Side

12:10 – Back in time again, to my 2nd birthday party. It’s a huge one. Every cousin, aunt, uncle and grandparent wedged into our basement rec room. I’m looking a little overwhelmed, circling a pole in the background as my cousins mug for the camera. When it’s time to blow out the candles I bravely poke a finger into the icing, lick it off my finger and immediately grab a napkin to clean my hand. Some things never change.

17:51 – Halloween. I’m six years old and for the first time I see evidence of my inability to tell if anyone is paying attention when I’m talking. As I scoop the seeds out of my pumpkin I’m rambling on about something to my sister who is too young to understand and my mother who is bustling around the kitchen, not even in the frame half the time. I’m blissfully undeterred.

Tends to carry on monologues on a favorite subject

20:12 – A bunch of Halloweens flash by. I’m Raggedy Ann. I’m a nurse. I’m a cat. Every costume has a stiff plastic mask which I pull off repeatedly. After yanking off the cat mask, I tug at my hair with both hands. Even today, my single most vivid memory of Halloween is the warm wet sensation of plastic against my face as my breath condensed on the inside of those masks.

29:50 – It’s snowed! My eighteen-month-old self is skeptical. I touch the snow with one mitten. Look at my hand. Immediately begin flapping. Cut to a shot of me a few months later, enjoying a fine spring day by toe-walking up the driveway. Yet another thing I’d say I never did if I hadn’t seen it here.

32:50 – I’m sitting on the couch with a doll. My parents have mounted a light on the camera to improve their movies. I peek toward the camera, grimace in shock (or pain?) and close my eyes. I not only don’t look at the camera again, I turn my doll’s head away too. Empathy! Does it still count if it’s for an inanimate object?

May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and/or touch

40:19 – My sister and I are playing with my dolls in my room. By playing I mean I’m lining them up against the wall by height while preventing her from touching them. She enjoys this about as much as you’d expect a toddler to.

Obsessively lines up or arranges things in a certain order.

Looking back at these old films through the lens of autism is really enlightening. I had telltale signs of Asperger’s syndrome at a time when AS didn’t exist. I don’t remember much of what I’ve related here, but I do remember being a generally happy kid in my preschool years. Because I didn’t attend nursery school or daycare, I guess spent my first five years in a bit of a bubble, happily stimming my way through Santa’s Land.

Was I a happy kid or what?
Was I a happy kid or what?

Signs of Autism in Early Childhood

While I’ve highlighted many of the early signs of autism in my observations of my younger self, each child is different. You can find comprehensive lists of early signs and symptoms at  Mayo Clinic: Autism Symptoms and/or the CDC’s ASD Signs and Symptoms.

31 thoughts on “Scenes from an Autistic Childhood”

  1. “Engages in repetitive gestures or behaviors like touching objects” LOL I have to touch everything. Doesn’t everyone do that as a kid? Things just don’t seem quite as real if you don’t touch them… Of course the beauty of being an adult is that you know it would seem weird if you did it in front of ppl…

    1. Er, it’s weird? :-/ Because I make a special trip to the kitchen section at Target just to touch the silicon kitchen tools. I’m constantly touching things. It does make them more real and I think it’s also a stimming/sensory feedback thing for me.

      At any given moment, it’s probably not the weirdest thing I’m doing anyhow. 🙂

      1. I went to a grocery store a few kilometres away tonight. It’s open 24/7, unlike the nearby ones, so I was pretty much alone, not even a car in sight. It was really pretty and foggy and I happily trailed my hand against fences and railings and buildings.

      2. It was. And it was a peaceful experience of buying groceries. There were very few other customers. I had whole aisles to myself. Most of the people I saw were people who worked there and they were busy restocking so they left me alone. During the day I can get really overwhelmed at the store with the constant beeping from scanning items making my brain reboot and all the people crowded into the aisles and I sometimes want to throw a tantrum and say “this is my aisle! I’m looking at the things in this aisle!” but I don’t because I know better. I got to go up and down all the aisles and look at all the things and buy everything I needed without having to leave early. 1am is a great time to go grocery shopping. i think i’ll do it more in the future.

      1. Haha! I love this conversation. Yes. I mean, if you both touch things like my clan touches things, it’s weird, but in a good way. 🙂 Tactile input is important. Energy exchange. All that. Very cool post!

  2. Childhood symptoms is one of the reasons I sometimes wonder if I actually have ASD or whether things just went wrong in my introverted life so early on that I just feel like I have it. There isn’t any video of me as a child, and my photos show either serious faces or unabashedly happy faces. But no one has ever said I appeared different except for being intensely shy and neurotic. I don’t remember toe walking, or not pointing, or when I started talking. I was/am a stimmer, though. My mom seems to think every problem I’ve ever had originated with my parents’ messy divorce when I was 5. Issues like that probably cloud everything.

    But oh man, do I relate to this: An entire reel of me sitting beside my inflatable pool, washing the grass off my feet. I’m still doing it when the camera shuts off. I seriously did not like having grass stuck to my feet. Or grass in my pool.

    I can barely even LOOK at grass on wet feet without cringing. Argh.

    Oh, and I’m a toucher and a sniffer. For me, those two go together, touch, sniff, touch, sniff. Drives my husband crazy 🙂

    1. I don’t remember toewalking, not pointing, stimming or most of what I saw on these films. I also never noticed most of it until I sat down and pointedly looked, after I’d read about childhood symptoms. I’m lucky to be able to go back and do this–my parents filmed a whole lot of my childhood, especially the very early years. Without being able to watch the films as an objective observer, I would have said I had very few early childhood symptoms and was a shy, nervous kid.

      I wonder if your mom’s memories are colored by an event (the divorce) that was especially stressful for her? Perhaps she has a before and after line her head and traces a lot back to that.

  3. Really interesting. I must look back at our home videos to see whether I missed anything in my daughter early on. Trouble is, I vaguely remember that, last time I watched them, she seemed so happy in the videos compared to how she seemed at the time we were watching, I just managed to leave the room before bursting into tears. This was before she was diagnosed as high functioning autistic/Aspergers. Of course, at the time we watched them she was in her mid teens and who isn’t a pain then anyway? I do vividly remember footage of all the family being out on a walk and her endlessly collecting fallen petals without taking much notice of anything else.

    1. I think hindsight is really 20/20. Seeing traits condensed down into home movies feels different than I think the day to day observances and interactions of a parent would be, especially if the child’s traits are milder or show in some unconventional ways (like your daughter collecting petals).

      I wonder if rewatching the videos now, you’ll have a different feeling that you did when your daughter was younger.

  4. Like everything you write, Ms Musings, this was fascinating. Thank you so much for the time you give to this. You are helping to educate and inform so many people, and entertaining us all the way.

  5. I’m about six here and I’ve learned to wave at the camera without being reminded. I’m riding on a carousel and wave at the camera every single time I go by. Yep, I’ve got the waving thing down good.

    I learned at some point, probably late, that I was supposed to say hi to people when they appeared. I think I had been lectured about how it was rude not to acknowledge people’s presence and so I was making an effort to not offend anyone. So, I’m about 12 and we’re staying with a friend of my mother’s for a little vacation, and people are walking in and out of the room every few minutes — coming in from the kitchen or the bathroom or another room and then staying a few minutes, going to get something, coming back. And the three year old points out “mom! She says hi to me every time i walk into the room! every five minutes!” and his mom said, neutrally, “yes, she does, doesn’t she?” and so that was how I learned that the rules for when to say “Hi George!” are a little more varied than “every time they appear”.

    1. And I just hated the “look me in the eye when I’m talking to you” rule. And “Smile!” when someone is taking a photo of you. I hate looking people in the eye, even though it is supposed to somehow convey honesty. I’m practically incapable of lying, and yet I hate eye contact. Smiling at the camera – ugh! I’ve had to learn how to smile, and it still looks weird to me – like I’m displaying my teeth before biting someone.

      I’m a chronic nail biter. The more stressed I am, the worse it gets. I so relate to the touching thing. I never thought it was weird because I was always very, very careful. I remember a few years ago holding a small perfume bottle from a Roman excavation in my hands – so real. And sniffing. I hate bad smells, and good smells can send me into near bliss.

      1. I’m terrible at faking smiles for photos. I look like I’m in pain. I’ve recently found it helps to think of something funny or a happy moment so that I ‘feel’ like smiling rather than just moving my face into the right configuration.

        I’ve heard lots of people talk about really enjoying certain smells and finding them calming. It’s not something I experience strongly but it’s very much an autistic trait. For me, smells have a tendency of evoking strong memories, much more so than words or pictures.

  6. It’s so cute you shield your doll from the light too, maybe a new perspective on the empathy debate? Yes you looked happy in the last photo 🙂 Hammers were fun and your daughter was a mini you! Thanks for another great story!

  7. Everyone should touch everything! Well, I guess that would be weird, or scary huh? LOL I touch everything, in fact, I shop strictly by touching things, especially anything that is intended to touch me! Clothing, fabric, towels, bathmats, I have to thoroughly touch them all. And when I say thoroughly, I mean, squish them, rub them on my fact (why would the bathmat be on my face–I dunno but just in case)…

    I do this even more if I am nervous or overloaded…in those cases I will actually find something in the store to walk around with and craddle while I am rubbing it… sometimes hubby had to remind me to stop rubbing the stuffed bear on my face at the check-out counter…lol

    1. I touch everything when I shop, too. It’s essential. You have to touch the bathmat because you’re going to step on it barefoot! I have the most amazingly soft nubby bathmat from Ikea. It’s perfect. I also have a giant stuffed dog from Ikea because he made me so happy while I was shopping that I couldn’t put him down. 🙂

  8. I love the fact that you were at Storyland in Glen, New Hampshire when you wrote about Humpty-Dumpty…a place that we take our own ASD kid!

  9. Realize you’ve taken time off from the blog….but I just looked at some of my pictures from when I was a child! I was maybe 8 at the time, but I am noticing similar things. I’ll have no expression when the context of the picture is that I should be smiling (or just acting in a way that’s way out of context). I only smile/grin/laugh/giggle a lot when I’m genuinely happy, but otherwise, no expression. This is precisely why a teacher thought I was glaring at her, and I had no idea at the time! This just cements what I already know about myself-that I’m not neurotypical. It also validates my experiences growing up, that I’m not the only one…so thanks!

    1. I’m sort of back. Answer comments in the hopes that it will warm me up to writing again.

      It’s interesting to look back through the lens of ASD and see things that were written off as shyness or surliness or spaciness or whatever. I’ve gone through photos from childhood all the way up until quite recently and my expressions are routinely “off”–out of context, flat or inappropriate to the situation. I can’t smile in a photo unless I’m truly feeling happy, so that doesn’t help much.

      Glad you’re finding validation and explanations!

  10. What I am finding fascinating as an adult only just know finding the right answers, is that a lot of those “traits typical of autistic children” are things that I did- but all the time I thought that every one else processed things the same as I did. For instance, two stereotyped (colloquial use of the word) stims that I thought of as ordinary, or had to really think about, were playing with parts of toys and lining up toys. I would play with wind up cars and pull backs, but instead of letting them go to watch them zip across the floor, I would turn them up so that I could watch the wheels spin… I would be so fascinated by it. I liked to line up my toys, particularly I remember doing this with some farm and construction toys that I had with the machines and little people… I would line them up like they were all going somewhere, and had them separated by what they were (farm, construction, police etc) I would spend hours meticulously arranging the toys. I did things like that well into my second year of high school.
    I actually have a tendency to do this with my collections- I guess that makes this quirk a gift too. Speaking of straightening objects- I used to get told by my mom not to linger straightening the things on the self at the grocery store “that’s not your job” she would say. I still do this to this day, if I am not straightening, I am poking or feeling (especially soft things, pillows, curtains, clothes, blankets) Walmart employees must get a chuckle out of this. Ironically I hated working at Walmart- too much pressure and too much going on to be there for 8 hours + overtime and dealing with customers, ick.

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