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early signs of autism

Lizzie climbed up the playground stairs on all fours, walked across the small suspension bridge and slid down the big red slide at our neighborhood park. I followed just inches behind my 4-year-old daughter ready to catch her.

I had become her shadow by necessity. Her actions were often unpredictable and sometimes dangerous so my arms became her safety net. Her big brown eyes and unruly curly brown hair encapsulated her carefree spirit, and I adored her with a love I never thought myself capable of.

She walked over to the swings and stood there, stiff, her eyes glazed over. She didn't look to me for help. She didn't point, raise her arms up or ask me to place her in the swing. But I knew what she wanted—I sensed it.

"Do you want to swing, Lizzie?" I asked in a gentle voice. She remained silent.

I didn't expect an answer, but I always asked in hopes today was the day she would choose to use her voice to form a word for the sake of communicating with me. I placed her in the swing anyway and pushed her to the exact height I knew she preferred.

A look of contentment came across her face and a giant smile curled her lips. She was in her happy place. This place was a place I wasn't allowed in—not yet anyway. She lived in an alternative universe inside her head, and after the park, we would spend the rest of the day inside using therapy techniques to pull her from this place into the real world. I missed my daughter and the connection we once had.

There were so many quirks I thought were hers alone, when in fact they were symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.

Here are five possible signs of autism parents should know about. If you notice something that concerns you, please reach out to your pediatrician.

1. Change in language

As a baby, Lizzie's language gradually changed from babbling to gibberish. "With typically developing language skills, infants will babble often as early as two to three months indicating first instances of intentional and social communication," says licensed clinical speech language pathologist Julie Liberman. "An early sign of autism may be seen in infants creating nonsense syllables without added social-communicative behaviors."

Lizzie lost her social-communicative sounds and began to mimic noises from her environment such as screeching sounds or sirens. She also developed a few sounds such as "diddle diddle" that she would repeat all day long. The transition was subtle and slow—enough that at first I didn't recognize that it was happening. .

2. Sensory processing issues

"Sensory processing is how our brain and body organize and respond to sensory information. Issues develop when we are over or under-responsive to sensory information which impacts the body's ability to organize it, or modulate it and so responses range outside of typical parameters and dysregulation is observed," writes licensed occupational therapist Rachel Wolverton.

Lizzie walked on her tiptoes, flapped her arms when she was excited and ran full speed into the couch cushions over and over again. Many toddlers do similar behaviors, and we thought she was just being quirky and adorable. As part of her diagnosis, though, we came to understand that these repeated behaviors were signals that her processing was under-stimulated. She needed these movements to help her body and brain function. This also works the opposite way, too. Many kids are over-sensitive to lights, sounds and/or touch, so they become easily overstimulated. They might cover their ears, melt down when clothes are put on their bodies or withdraw from crowds.

3. Lack of response to name

Lizzie displayed what I call "selective hearing." I would stand in front of her, saying her name with a raised voice and she wouldn't respond or look up. She appeared to be deaf, but as soon as the theme song from her favorite Dora the Explorer TV show came on, she would run from the other room to watch.

As autistic teen advocate Matteo Musso explains, "Because we hear your voice so much, we don't usually respond to our name. It's that you say our name the same way all the time. A TV is more auditorily complex. One-word, same voice, can get lost in our thoughts and in our brain."

4. Repetitive behavior

My daughter began lining up her toys by color and her green peas at the dinner table. We thought she was brilliant! She is brilliant, but as it turns out, not because of her repetitive behavior.

While many children love repetition—as any parent who's got their child's favorite bedtime story memorized knows—what I learned is that the kind of repetitive behavior we saw in Lizzie is one of the core symptoms of autism.

"Individuals with autism typically find much comfort in repetitive behaviors, giving them a sense of control over their environment in a quite unruly world," says Dr. Caroline W. Ford, clinical psychologist and director of the Fairhill School and Diagnostic Assessment Center in Dallas. As she explains, autistic children experience real difficulty when their repetitive behaviors are interrupted: "When asked to change or alter the repetitive behavior, many autistic children become overly anxious."

5. Loss of connection

One of the most beautiful moments between mother and child is the first time her baby looks into her mom's eyes. It was in that moment with Lizzie, the connection formed was so strong I knew I would be willing to do anything for her.

Slowly over the course of months, she became more and more distant. She wandered around the house aimlessly and didn't seem to need me at all. As long as there was food and drink available, she was content to be all alone. It was hard to measure because it was a feeling, a distancing, a loss of connection. I second-guessed my feelings regularly. Mothers have a built-in intuition with their children, which should never be underestimated.

After my daughter's diagnosis with autism at the age of two, we researched and implemented a 30-hours-a-week home therapy program (although it's important to know that early intervention supports can also be found through community organizations and school systems—you don't have to do this alone). Now, I'm happy to say, Lizzie has made good progress, and I've found (and offered) support in the generous community of parents of autistic children like mine. I even started a non-profit, United in Autism, which partners with local charities to bring community-building, emotional-support events to special needs moms all over the country.

My daughter continues to be a source of joy and amazement. Most importantly, I know now that my daughter and I are not alone—and we never were.

Who says you have to wait for birthdays or holidays to give your bestie a great gift? A sweet surprise that tells her you've been thinking of her might be the pick-me-up she needs in these more-than-trying times. We've rounded up some of our favorite go-to gifts that are certain to be a bright spot in her week. But be warned, you may want to snag a few for yourself. (You deserve it, mama.)

Here are some our favorite "just because" gifts to give our hardworking mama friends.

New Mother face + body care duo

volition face + body care duo

This correcting oil and stretch mark minimizer is perfect for the pregnant mama looking to keep her pregnancy glow. The correcting oil brightens the skin while reducing dark spots, and the stretch mark minimizer works to smooth her ever-growing belly.

$70

Allover roller

esker allover roller

This jade roller goes beyond your typical face roller and can be used anywhere on the body. It works to increase stimulation and reduce puffiness and is perfect for applying any oils to the face or body. Plus, it feels like a mini spa treatment.

$65

Kombucha making kit

farmsteady kombucha making kit

What could be a more perfect gift for the health-obsessed friend? This kombucha making kit comes with everything you need to brew your own homemade green tea kombucha. They'll think this is the tastiest gift ever.

$45

Laetitia lipstick

cupid & psyche laetitia

This red lipstick is perfect for your makeup enthusiast bestie who is looking to spruce up her life in quarantine. Crafted in the United States, these bee and vegan-friendly and cruelty-free lipsticks are created to flatter all complexions. Cupid and Psyche Beauty makes finding the perfect red lip way too easy!

$23

Jigsaw puzzle

inner piecec jigsaw puzzle

Mamas need to destress now more than ever during quarantine. This adorable jigsaw puzzle is perfect for the mama who needs a brain break! The 500-piece puzzle designed by artist Ray Oranges features an abstract gradient design that fits a standard frame when completed. Bonus: It's printed on recycled paper and the company donates $1 from every puzzle sold to youth mindfulness programs.

$30

Matilda's Bloombox

matilda's bloombox

If we have to be stuck inside, we might as well have some gorgeous florals to brighten up the space. Matilda's Bloombox locally sources blooms, delivers them to her door and provides simple tips on how to arrange it into a beautiful bouquet.

$39

'I Am Enough' bracelet

I Am Enough bracelet

Let this dainty bracelet serve as a constant reminder to your bestie that she is enough. She'll wear this on her wrist and read this daily oath to herself, "I Am Enough."

$35

Glow assorted teas

vahdam low assorted teas

This tea gift box set covers the entire spectrum of flavors from sweet to spicy. Individually packaged in beautiful tins, your gal pal will feel like a queen sipping her morning tea. Originally $40, this set is currently on sale for just $24. We'll take two, please.

$24

Find your voice journal

find your voice journal

Journaling is a great way to ease anxiety and will slow your bestie's racing mind before bed. This gift is perfect for first time journalists and includes prompts, daily quotes and coloring pages to help her unlock her potential and find her voice.

$22

Premium frother

shore magic premium frother

This gift is fitting for your latte-sipping bestie who can't go a day without her coffee. All she has to do is add two scoops of collagen to her favorite drink, and she'll have a perfectly foamy drink ready in seconds. Skipping the drive-thru line has never been so easy!

$25

Bath soak infusion kit

maude bath soak infusion kit

Say hello to hydration! She'll be feeling smooth and relaxed as ever after a long bath soaking in these salts. This vegan + cruelty-free set incorporates dead sea salt and dehydrated coconut milk powder for an ultra hydrating experience.

$32

Tiny Tags 'mama' necklace

Tiny Tags 'mama' necklace

It's a hard-earned title she answers to a hundred times per day. Whether she's new to the club or a seasoned professional, this delicate script 'mama' necklace is guaranteed to be a perfect fit.

$105

Superfood honey

Beekeeper's Naturals B.Powered honey

With a lack of sleep and jam-packed days, getting through the afternoon can be a real challenge. Send her a powerful pick-me-up in the form of a therapeutic blend of royal jelly, bee pollen, propolis and raw honey. It makes the ideal companion for tea, smoothies, yogurt or even on its on.

$17

Calming midnight mask with melatonin

Who doesn't deserve a reminder to pamper themself every once in awhile? Even better, this mask does all its work at night while you're sleeping with no extra effort needed. It's an amazing plant-powered antioxidant-packed mask that has melatonin, wild dandelion leaf and hyaluronic acid to rehydrate, repair and reset facial skin. It's so good, you might want to gift it to yourself. We won't tell, mama.

$68

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