How Can I Tell If My Toddler Is Imitating My Older Son's Autistic Symptoms, Or If He Has Autism?

Dr. Zwaigenbaum answers the question: 'Toddler Imitating A Sibling With Autism?'

Oct. 23, 2008 -- Question: How can I tell if my toddler is imitating my older son's autistic symptoms, or if he has autism?

Answer: I think what may be most apparent to people, particularly outside of the family, is for that older child with autism, the thing that they do that may be different than other children and sometimes the more overt, repetitive kinds of behaviors, like flapping their hands or walking on their toes or their fascination with things in the environment and how they look and explore their play materials.

However, I think what many of us who are working with infants at risk of autism are finding are that the differences, really stem from not so much the atypical things the infants are doing, but some of the typical things that they're not doing, like establishing eye contact and sharing their emotions through big smiles and participating in social activities, even something as simple as a game of peek-a-boo, where there's a degree of turn-taking and anticipation, and you can tell sort of from across the room that the child is engaged and connected to the activity. I think what a lot of parents describe is the sense that they don't get the same -- you know, from, even from these young infants -- that they don't get the same sharing of positive emotion, that it's much harder to get that child's attention and engage in a social activity and that their interest in play materials and other things in the environment is just somewhat different than other infants their age.

I think for a lot of these families, the difference is that it's off-and-on reflection about the older child. They recognize that some of these early skills were not as well-established. And I think it's often -- and I think really the parents are the experts here, because it's often the scenario where the parent has a toddler or a preschooler with autism and then has a younger, typically-developing infant, and they recognize that it's so effortless to engage that child, to play and that that infant is sort of constantly grabbing their attention by vocalizing, by looking at them and they realize how effortless it was and how incredibly effortful it was with the older child at that earlier stage of development.