A diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s has become a common fear among parents but there is another possible explanation for strange infant traits. Idiosyncratic behaviors, and aversion to highly stimulating and social environments could be due to introversion rather than autism.
Parents have become increasingly concerned about when their children reach developmental milestones and nearly any unusual or repetitive behaviors are seen as cause for a trip to the pediatrician. However, certain fixations, repetitive movements, and preferences for solitude could be indicative of introversion, or normal infant development, rather than a developmental disorder.
Infancy is marked by strange behaviors and repetitive motions. In order for neuronal connections to be effectively established a high degree of repetition is necessary, for both physical and cognitive tasks. If this fixation lingers for more than a few months a developmental disorder may be to blame.
Babies go through phases in which they frequently engage in specific behaviors that are enjoyable for them. One example is shaking the head back and forth as though saying “no” in a very exaggerated fashion. Nobody knows for sure why babies do this, but ideas proposed by professionals suggests that babies may simply enjoy the dizzy feeling it gives them.
Rocking, head shaking, and arm flapping are some of the behaviors that normal infants engage in, but are often also included in lists of autistic behaviors, fueling fear in parents. In reality, it is only when the behaviors are very extreme and persist for months and then years that there is good cause for concern.
Normal infant development includes regressive stages also. Coincidentally, regression, pertaining especially to language acquisition is considered a hallmark sign of autism.
When infants are approaching specific milestones their performance in other areas often regresses. Pediatricians speculate that this is because there needs to be such intense focus on accomplishing tasks such as sitting independently and crawling, that less mental effort and interest is put into things like speech.
Having a baby that babbles and then suddenly stops is an understandably cause for concern among parents, but the truth is that this happens and resolves itself more often than it indicates a true developmental disorder.
New findings suggest that one behavior thought to be normal, such as a high interest in faces, can actually be a sign of an autistic spectrum disorders. Children who are later diagnosed with autism were found in one study, to have demonstrated an elevated level of interest in other’s faces, compared with typical babies, prior to the age of six months. This level of interest declines however, to below the degree of interest that typical babies exhibit at the age of six months. This is when the average baby’s interest in faces and social interaction is increasing.
These findings have led to a proposed new way of diagnosing the disorder by tracking eye movements based on the more recent idea that autism is present from birth rather than something that develops between six months and three years of age.
Another trait increasingly but mistakenly associated with autism is a preference for solitary activities. This can occur in perfectly healthy children rather than in just those who have a developmental disorder.
Children who are prone to pursuing solitude may just be introverted. These children need to have quiet time and space without social demands put on them in order to remain emotionally balanced. Introverts become over-stimulated and stressed with too much social interaction. They still enjoy it, but usually prefer smaller groups, familiar surroundings, and social events that are briefer than those enjoyed by extroverts. Children with autism may avoid social interaction altogether and those with Asperger’s may have preferences similar to those of introverts. It is no wonder why parents get confused by all of this.
The introvert’s inclination to be a perfectionist, highly sensitive, and intelligent can also overlap with autistic traits. This combination can complicate the picture further for extroverted parents who may have a hard time understanding the reasons why their introverted child gets upset.
Perfectionism can look like rigid and obsessive behavior, high sensitivity can look like anxious over-arousal or sensory integration problems, and high intelligence can inaccurately be attributed to savant-like brilliance by the untrained eye.
While any deep parental concern should be investigated with a professional it is important that parents understand their child and developmental disorders enough to avoid leading a doctor or psychologist to erroneously conclude that their child has autism. Extroverted parents might find it even more difficult to view a child’s decreased need for social activity as something that is potentially normal and healthy.
In order for parents to get an accurate diagnosis they have to report what they observe accurately. Parents with a misunderstanding of autism and a lacking knowledge of normal personality variation can make a child more susceptible to misdiagnosis.
The high value that Americans place on extroversion can also contribute to misinterpretation of behavior. Over the course of history introversion has been viewed in the psychological community as being dysfunctional or indicative of neuroses, but this is cultural. In other countries, such as Japan, introversion is the more highly valued trait in members of society so it is highly unlikely that they would confuse it with autism.
While the academic and socially focused interventions designed for children with developmental disorders are highly unlikely to be detrimental to any child, being incorrectly labeled could leave an individual stigmatized and even emotionally scarred.
The high value that has been placed on early intervention for autism may now be creating pressured and inaccurate diagnoses among healthy children. Rather than rushing to label a child with autism or Asperger’s, parents and specialists should be striving just as much to find that a child is just a unique individual on a healthy continuum.
Autism is worthy of dedicated research, diagnosis, and intervention efforts, but continuing to entertain the possibility that unique children and behaviors are within the realm of normal or even indicative of something as simple as introversion is just as important.
By Lara Stielow