In today’s environment, my childhood autistic signs probably wouldn’t have gotten missed by savvy teachers or perhaps my parents.

Perhaps your child has these traits?

If the autism education that’s on the rise today had been kicking up strong when I was growing up, I might’ve been diagnosed before college—even possibly in childhood.

The SIGNS WERE THERE. It’s surreal how those signs today would scream autism, while decades ago, they sunk below the radar.

In spring of 2022 I got a diagnosis I should’ve received in childhood: Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Late life diagnoses in women are primarily the result of two things:

1) Growing up in an environment in which autism is associated with boys.

2) The (incorrect) belief that autism always presents with stereotypical behaviors such as difficulty with verbal communication, avoidance of eye contact, staring at fans for hours and erupting into “temper tantrums” over a change in routine.

My childhood was simple, and my schedule was controlled by my parents. It was predictable. I don’t recall sudden unexpected changes.

There were also changes that I welcomed such as having the furniture in the bedroom I shared with my sister rearranged (always a novelty!) and going on vacations.

I welcomed the change that was summer vacation from school. I dreaded the change that was school resuming in the fall, though I never acted this out.

We moved when I was four or five; I don’t recall my response. We moved again when I was 11, and I vividly recall desperately wanting this change.

We moved again when I was 15, and I wanted that change, too, including attending a new high school.

This drastic change was welcome because it represented a chance to start fresh and get away from classmates and teachers who thought I was weird.

But generally, I welcome sameness, a basic routine and predictability, but this doesn’t mean I should have meltdowns in the face of unexpected change just because I’m autistic (“If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person”).

Autistic Traits in My Childhood that Got Missed

#1…Strange/Unusual Interests and Obsessions

The ones below were apparent to family members.

• Wanting to melt crayons (age 8 or 9)

• Car trunks that curved up at the end (younger than age 9)

• Intrigue with seashells (started in early grade school)

• Fascination with window shades (age 9)

• A locally publicized missing boys’ case (age 10)

• Kohoutek Comet (age 10)

• Intense interest in accumulating houseplants (age 11-13)

• The movie “Jaws” and sharks (12)

• 1970s TV series “The Incredible Hulk” (15)

#2…Intense Focus Seemingly Beyond Age Level

• Highly skilled creating illustrations with the iconic Etch-A-Sketch

• Drawing talent

• Ability to compose simple songs on the piano

• Ability to play, by rote memory, piano music pieces (learned the “Bach Invention” at age seven). It’s fair to note that this was possible only with my mother’s instruction.

• However, I also had the skill to figure out how to play piano songs by ear that I heard on TV such as “Nadia’s Theme” (played when gymnast Nadia Comaneci was shown in slow motion on the uneven parallel bars) and “The Lonely Man” (closing music for every episode of “The Incredible Hulk”) plus the “Hulk” love theme.

#3…Preference of Solitary Activities over Mingling with Other Kids

In grade school I had one friend — a playmate rather than a true friend — and only in grades two, three and four.

A bigger tipoff to autism was that I never showed any distress or sadness over my lack of friends.

It was apparent I was quite content with solitary activities such as drawing, playing the piano, using the Etch-A-Sketch, viewing the same slides over and over with the ViewMaster, riding my bicycle, puttering around outside in the yard and watching TV game shows.

The ViewMaster. ; CC-BY-SA-4.0orGradzeichen – CC-BY-SA-4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 Wikimedia Commons

I occasionally “played” with a new next-door girl two years younger, but she was a playmate of convenience. We actually had little in common.

In junior high I’d get occasional phone calls, and I’m pretty sure I’d tell my mother I was going over Lois’s house to play Monopoly with a few other girls.

In high school I had no friends other than a weekly jogging partner in 10th grade whose house I slept over one time, but my parents surely were acutely aware that there was some sort of deficiency in socializing with peers — especially since my two older sisters always had a fertile social life.

They were always involved with friends, while I was more interested in medical specials on TV such as “The Body Human” and science shows such as the acclaimed series “Cosmos.”

While my two older sisters often went out, my parents always knew where I was on weekend nights during my high school years: in my bedroom.

#4…No Interest in Dating…Whatsoever

Never once did I mention dating or boyfriends during high school. I wasn’t interested. Never once did I express interest in going to proms, nor did I ever show or mention distress over never being asked to a prom.

#5…Sensory Issues

  • Hated using standard-size spoons; it HAD to be a soup spoon for cereal, pudding and ice cream.
  • Refused to drink out of plastic cups; it HAD to be glassware.
  • At one point during young grade school I didn’t like my panties pulled up to my waist, and had them pushed down to my crotch. My mother found out and ordered me to wear them pulled up.
  • Covered my ears during fireworks shows.
  • Refused to eat bagels, which I loved, after watching my hamster cleaning itself while it was perched on its hind legs. The way the hamster’s underside bulged out near the legs resembled the inside of a bagel. It was a long time before I could resume eating bagels.

#6…”Obsession” with My Sister

She’s two and a half years older. She thought I was obsessed with her. And, according to autism literature, I was.

The obsession began around age eight or nine, and lasted a year or two (timelines are fuzzy).

She’d complain repeatedly to our mother that I kept “tagging along” with her. If she left the house to ride her bike, I’d follow. “She follows me EVERYWHERE!” she’d gripe to our mother.

When my sister left to ride her bike to a friend’s house, I’d watch her like a hawk through the living room window as she coasted down Brandon Street (which faced directly towards our house) until I could no longer see her. I’d worry she’d get kidnapped or hit by a car.

Sometimes her absence distressed me so much that I got into bed, hoping to sleep through the absence. I’d then be wakened by her voice somewhere in the house after she returned and feel this rush of relief.

At one point I took to planting myself on a chair in the den, from which I had a good view of the front door, the door to the garage and the porch door.

This way I could monitor when my sister left the house so I could follow her. She complained to our mother, “She’s purposely sitting there because she could see all three doors!”

#7…Serious Demeanor

I smiled and laughed a lot less than did other kids. As an autistic trait, this completely flew over my parents’ heads because both of them were kind of serious all the time as well.

Not all “serious” people are autistic, but when this is considered along with other peculiar traits, it makes the suspicion for autism quite strong.

#8…Advanced Vocabulary for My Age

#9…Intense Interest in Science

Easily off the radar screen, being that one of my father’s degrees was in engineering; and engineering was one of a brother’s college majors.

Another brother had always been interested in chemistry, and my oldest sister had always been interested in medicine.

Thus, my interest in astronomy and bionics didn’t stand out to my parents, especially since my father enjoyed the TV series, “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

#10…Stimming

One time my mother and I had to share a bed when on vacation, and by then, I couldn’t fall asleep without a foot rhythmically “kicking.” My mother felt it and ordered me to “stop that.” It was difficult to suppress it.

My memory of other childhood stimming behaviors is poor. If I’d had a habit of frequently moving something while watching TV or drawing, I wouldn’t necessarily remember.

I slightly rock (only in private), and I don’t know when this started. It’s entirely possible that my parents noticed a little rocking in childhood and thought nothing of it.

They certainly would’ve thought nothing of leg and foot movements while watching TV.

I heard, “Get your fingers out of your mouth,” WAY more than a few times.

The case for autism is the strongest when a variety of behaviors, rather than singling one out, is considered.

If I were born in 2000, it’s very possible someone in 2010 would’ve spotted my peculiarities and recommended an autism spectrum evaluation.

Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

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Top image: Shutterstock/Vitalinka