Whereas an average toddler might play with several toys in rapid succession, an autistic child will often fixate on one toy for long periods of time or only play with one particular toy. Children with autism will often play with toys unpredictably. For example, three very common play-traits are lining up objects, fixating on a minor mechanism of a toy such as staring at a spinning wheel of a toy car and destructive play like peeling off decorative stickers. Most children with autism will not engage in play that is obviously imaginative. This can be hard to pick up on its own, because children with autism often do not have much speech and rarely seek out playmates (or you) to play with. Another autistic behavior that can look like play is waving hands and fingers in front of the eyes.
Another recognizable sign of autism in young children is the way they move when playing. Some kids seem to transition from toddling to track star/gymnast. They run, jump, hang and swing like little adults. Children with autism are often weak and uncoordinated, with poor muscle strength, balance, an immature running gait, and delayed gross and fine motor skill development. Because of this, they often do not engage in running games or climb around on the monkey bars. It is quite common to find an child with autism standing alone and flapping his/her hands and arms rather than engaging in typical playground play. One very common manifestation is an inability to go up and down stairs without support. Look at how you and typical children climb stairs – continuous and smooth, with one foot per stair and no need to hold a hand rail. Autistic children often use an immature and choppy two foot per stair gait and depend heavily on hand rails for stability. Climbing stairs is so done so frequently that it is a good way to measure your child’s progress as they begin to conquer their autism. However, they may need significant help from a physical or occupational therapist before they master this task.
Somewhere around the age of 3-4 years, most kids will begin to play with other children rather than playing separately but side-by-side. Children with autism commonly lack the social skills necessary to initiate or engage in cooperative play and subsequently do not develop typical cooperative play behaviors.
Little kids love to show and tell. They thrive on shared enjoyment and seem to want to teach their parents in the same way they are taught. A normal kid may look up at the sky and point to an airplane with a joyful “AIRPLANE” or something similar. Autistic children often do not exhibit any shared enjoyment or exhibit a need to “teach” or “show” their parents.