Autistic? Or Just “Quirky”?

As a parent educator, and as a parent of autistic children with ADHD, I’ve had multiple discussions with parents who are wondering whether their child is autistic, wondering whether they should have them tested, and receiving testing results of “well, we can’t say it’s autism, but we also can’t rule out autism.” I’ve also had conversations with colleagues about children in their classes, where they’ll wonder about a child’s unusual behavior, but also say “I see these symptoms, but I don’t think they’re autistic, because they don’t ______.”  [fill in the blank of a stereotyped assumption about how “all” autistic people behave].

It’s tricky to figure out what to do about these “maybe?” cases, and trickier still when parents see that their child has challenges, and think they would benefit from support (like occupational therapy or social groups) but their insurance won’t cover it unless they have the diagnosis.

The Autism Diagnosis

When I was a kid, we tended to think of autistic people as ones who showed significant impairment in multiple domains: non-verbal, developmentally delayed, frequently stimming (e.g. rocking). Then there were a bunch of other kids who were skilled in many areas, but had some unusual behaviors. We called them “quirky” or “odd ducks” or said they “march to the beat of their own drummer.”

Then the term Asperger’s syndrome appeared, and was often applied to kids who were gifted and “quirky.” And we would talk about people in terms of “where are they on the spectrum” or “are they low functioning or high functioning?”

Now, Asperger’s is no longer a distinct diagnosis. It’s been pulled back under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The criteria for an ASD diagnosis in the DSM-V require showing symptoms in both of these categories:
A) Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction (deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction and in developing, maintaining, and understand relationships) and
B) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (as manifested by at least two of: S
tereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech; Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of behavior; Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus; Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input.)

Or to put it in a less deficit-based language: A) challenges with social interaction and emotional interaction with neurotypical peers and B) strong preferences for predictable routines and specific interests.

But within these criteria, there’s a range of behaviors from subtle to blatant, and from minimal impact to major impacts on school and home

What is a spectrum disorder?

When autism is described as a spectrum, it doesn’t mean this. (source)

continuum labeled not autistic at one end, and very autistic at the other end

Or this (source)

continuum, labelled "a little quirky" on the left, "definitely autistic" in the middle, and "tragic" on the right

Autism is a more complex way of interacting with the world that can’t be described on a simple numeric scale, and can’t be simplified to “not a problem” to “tragic”.

I’ll share with you here a few different ways that it has been illustrated, so you can find the one the best resonates with your experience.

The autism spectrum can look something more like this:

An illustration of a circle where the "pie pieces" are labeled language, executive function, etc. and dots indicate where the person might have more strengths vs. more difficulties

(That image comes from this great comic on “Understanding the Spectrum” by Rebecca Burgess – I highly recommend reading it.)

This graphic (source) breaks the spectrum into five categories, similar to Burgess, though the colors and the way they break things out are a little different:

GAO

And says that “the type and severity of characteristics varies from person to person.”

Picture1

C.L. Lynch on theaspergian.com uses this illustration

spectrum

Then gives a few examples of how this would apply for an individual person.

spectrum 2

I don’t know which one of these graphics might be helpful for you, but I find it very helpful to think of these more nuanced descriptions rather than a single axis of “a little quirky” to “tragic.”

I know that if someone asks me if my son is “high functioning” or “low” or asked “how autistic is he”, I would find it difficult to answer those questions. It’s much easier to tell you – “here are the things he’s good at, here are some behaviors he does that might seem odd to you but don’t harm anyone or anything, and here are some challenges he has and some accommodations you could make that might help him to manage them.”

To Test or Not to Test

I have been a childbirth educator for over 20 years. In that field, we often say – before you get a test, think what you will do with the results and whether it will be helpful to you to have the results.

If you are a parent deciding whether to test, or an early childhood professional deciding whether to refer for testing, it’s worth asking that same question.

If there are services that you believe that your child would benefit from that they can only access if they have a diagnosis, then you should get your child tested. If it would be helpful to you as a parent to have a “label” that helps you better understand your child and learn more about what they need, then it’s worth getting them tested to learn more from a professional, whether that’s a diagnosis or just resources for more ideas and support. (My daughter chose to pursue a diagnosis at age 20, during her sophomore year of college. For her, the diagnosis came as a relief, because in the past, it was easy for her to think her “quirks” were her fault and that she should be able to fix them herself. Once she had the diagnosis of autism, she was better able to accept that this is just who she is and it’s OK to ask for the accommodations she needs to be successful.)

I can share my own experiences about decision making for my youngest: As a parent, I suspected something was unusual about him from when he was about six months old – signs like when he got overstimulated, he’d bump his head into things or have meltdowns. When he was a toddler, he would perseverate on things – like during one gymnastics class where he told his coach “I am an ankylosaurus” at least 20 times. He had singular obsessions – like the month where he wanted nothing but Cat in the Hat, or the periods where he only wanted to talk about the planets and could easily be calmed out of a meltdown by just handing him 8 objects and asking him to decide which one was Mercury, which was Venus, and putting them all in order.

However, he didn’t fit some key stereotypes of autism: he’s very verbal, OK at eye contact, and seeks out social connections. So no professional ever told us that we should seek an autism diagnosis, but I suspected that was where we would be someday.

I learned  about autism and sensory processing disorders, and what accommodations help kids with those challenges, and I just did all those things for him. We chose preschools and activities that were a good fit for him, not ones that we knew would push his buttons. We didn’t have him tested yet, because having results wouldn’t have changed anything about what we were doing.

However, when he started kindergarten, things got more challenging. Luckily his kindergarten teacher was fabulous with him and just naturally did the accommodations he needed. But all of school didn’t accommodate as well. So, at that point, we had the testing done, and received an autism diagnosis, and that has made it easier for us to access the services he needs. For school, he has an IEP which ensures he gets extra support. And now our insurance will cover OT treatment and therapeutic social groups for him. Having access to therapies and supports are the upsides of having the official diagnosis. (There is a downside… some summer camps and other programs say they can’t take children with autism or can only take a limited number, so there are some programs that are no longer an option for him.)

In second and third grade, when kids are expected to sit still and pay attention for longer periods, he was having challenges with that, so we then learned more and had him evaluated for ADHD. That diagnosis gave us access to medication which has been helpful for him and also allowed us to adjust his IEP for more accommodations which are helpful. So, doing each of those evaluations when we did worked out for us. Your needs may be different.

To refer or not to refer

As a parent educator, I observe the kids in my class. I had one toddler where I had no doubt she was on the autism spectrum and would benefit from early and intensive services. I spoke to that parent early in the year, encouraged her to seek testing, and got her connected to services.

I’ve had lots of other students who were “quirky.” I do developmental screenings in my toddler classes (here’s how you can do your own screening), and this can start the conversation with parents about developmental issues. If there’s a minor delay in one area, I just talk about ways to enhance learning in that area, but if I see more delays, we have a broader conversation about what might be going on there. So far, I have not had another child that I told the parents specifically that they should ‘have them tested now’ for autism. But, I have shared “here are some things about your child that are a little different than what we see in other kids their age. It could just be a temperament thing or just where they are in their development, but it does make me wonder a bit, so it’s something you could keep an eye on, and check in with me again if it becomes a concern.” I do mention the word autism, because I’ve spoken to parents of 7 year olds who have said things like “I can’t believe no professional we worked with ever mentioned the word autism to us before last  month or told us that those behaviors might be signs of autism. If anyone had the courage to have that conversation with us, we could have learned more about accommodations that would have helped us parent him more successfully and access services earlier.”

In my classes, I share my story of having two kids with an autism diagnosis (My older daughter was not diagnosed till age 20, because autism is different in girls and more difficult to diagnose especially for gifted girls). I hope to help people learn more about what autism looks like and how to interact effectively with autistic people.

I also talk about autism differently than the common dialogue. Autism is often treated as a tragic thing. I think it’s better to just think about it as a developmental difference which creates some challenges but can also be accommodated. If a child is blind, or deaf, we don’t expect them to be able to change that, just by “choosing to behave better.” We don’t assume that “learning to act normal” will “cure” them. We figure out what accommodations they need to move through the world, and to maximize their potential for a successful life. It’s an accessibility issue. The same is true for autism accommodations.

Autistic people also have unique strengths. For example, many have intense attention to detail, a high degree of persistence, and ability to analyze data. And “Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions.” (Source)

The Autism Self-Advocacy Network recognizes Autism Acceptance Month, which “promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people… making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.”

A Note on Co-Morbidity and Social Issues

Autism also has several co-morbidities: conditions that often occur with autism.  “Over half of autistic youth [also had] attention deficit disorder (53 percent) or anxiety (51 percent), nearly one quarter had depression, and 60 percent had at least two comorbid conditions. Other common comorbid conditions include sleep disorders, intellectual disability, seizure disorders, and gastrointestinal ailments.” (Source) Many of the challenges we think of as being due to autism actually come from these co-morbidities. We should think of them as separate issues and handle them separately.

And many of the “challenges” of autism actually come from societal attitudes toward autism. For example, if a child jumps up and down with excitement, is that really a problem behavior that needs to be corrected? If a teenager gets overwhelmed by noises, so chooses to wear noise-canceling headphones in many situations, is there a reason anyone else should care about this? If someone can’t stand it when the different foods on their plates touch each other, isn’t it easy to use just a little extra care when dishing them up instead of using a lot of energy telling them that “you just have to learn to cope with that”? If the neurotypical community understood more about neurodiverse people, it would greatly reduce the “challenges of autism.”

Screening and Diagnostic Testing

If you’re wondering about your child, or a child you know, start with this list of symptoms, or red flags to watch for. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html

If you’re still concerned about possible signs of autism, use a screening tool:

If you’re still concerned, talk to your child’s health care provider, and/or contact your state’s public early childhood system to request a free evaluation to find out if your child qualifies for intervention services. This is sometimes called a Child Find evaluation. If your child is under three years old, look at the ECTA website. If your child is 3 years old or older, contact your local public school system.

In King County, Washington, some resources for diagnostic testing include: Kindering (especially for kids under age 3), UW Autism Center (this is where my daughter was tested at age 20), and Seattle Children’s Autism Center. Some private practice psychologists also offer testing. For example, our son was tested by Heather Davis at Brook Powers Group, who had worked with him in their Incredible Years program.

Here is a podcast with tips for what to do when you’re waiting for an autism diagnosis or a PDF on the same topic.

What if they’re NOT diagnosed as autistic?

If your child has been tested for autism, and the diagnosis was “we can’t say it’s autism but we can’t rule it out” you’re in a bit of a bind.

If you feel your child needs services now and you can only access them if you have a diagnosis, you may have to do a fair amount of advocacy. Know that some clinics will refuse families who have already had an evaluation elsewhere – they worry that some parents may just be shopping around for someone who will give them the diagnosis they want. That wouldn’t be in the best interest of the child.

If it is possible for you to wait to pursue a diagnosis, that may work out better. A few months or a few years down the road, you may discover that they moved through a phase, and are now doing well in school and social occasions. Or, you may discover that things have gotten more challenging for them, and more professionals are on board with a diagnosis, given more evidence.

In the meantime, you can learn more about autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD and other issues. You may discover that there is a description that is a better fit for your child. It doesn’t help though, to be overly focused on finding a label – an answer to “WHY is my kid different than other kids.” Instead, you may find it more helpful to think: “given that my kid is who they are, what can I do to support them?” Learn how you can accommodate them so they’re not under continuous stress and pressure, while still giving them appropriate challenges so they learn and grow and reach their potential.

What was the Cause? Is there a Cure?

It can be tempting to ask “what causes autism” and for many parents, that’s a quest to understand whether they “did something wrong” that led their child to be autistic. There’s no one cause for autism. There may be genetic factors, or environmental factors, or a combination of environmental factors with genetic susceptibility. Personally, I have not found it helpful to look backwards and wonder about the cause – it’s better to focus on what we need to do to move forward into the future.

I also do not seek a “cure” for autism. (Partially because that implies it is a problem that needs to be fixed rather than just a different way of being in the world which benefits from accommodations.) Some parents spend a great deal of time and energy seeking a way to fix their child. There are some effective treatments which can help make things more manageable for the family, but there are also some “treatments” you’ll find on YouTube videos or random people’s blogs that can either cause harm, or simply just take more time, energy and money than they are worth.

For example, many parents have reported significant improvements in behavior problems with dietary changes. If you find diet changes that are generally considered nutritionally sound and they prove helpful for you, then hurray! But if a special diet is prohibitively expensive, or if it deviates from mainstream nutritional advice and might cause nutritional deficits, or if your kid is just a super picky eater and it’s a huge battle, it’s worth knowing that there’s not a lot of research that proves this is essential.

Resources on Autism

General Resource Guides

There are lots of resource guides from various organizations. Try these from the Seattle Children’s Autism Center, Autism Parenting Magazine, and the AAP. Plus these communication resources. Note: I have not vetted all these resources. If you discover materials that approach autism as a terrible disease to be cured, or focus on ways to “fix” autistic kids, you may choose to set those aside. I personally choose materials that talk about autism as a neurological difference that shapes who they are and how they interact with the world, and talks about ways we can increase accessibility for them. 

Autism Navigator has a free online class (approx 3 hours) on Autism in Toddlers. They have handouts you can print on everyday learning activities, how parents can support language and emotional skills, and Q&A for parents.

Discipline and Behavior Challenges

  • This article is short and helpful: 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children with Autism.
  • There are tons of helpful resources at challengingbehavior.org: visual schedules, tip sheets on making daily routines easier, handouts on teaching emotional IQ, addressing behavior like hitting or biting.
  • If it’s available in your area, I highly recommend the Incredible Years program. (We worked with Shanna Alvarez in Seattle, who was fabulous.) While the parents meet, the kids attend “Dinosaur School” which teaches social and emotional skills. Note: my Discipline Toolbox is highly influenced by what we learned at Incredible Years.
  • Ross Greene has some really helpful tools, summarized as “Kids Want to Do Well – If they’re not doing well, ask yourself what skill or resources they are lacking.”
  • If emotional regulation is a challenge for your child, check out my post on Big Feelings and the Zones of Regulation approach.

Building Connections with Your Child

Floor Time, or Child Directed Play, is a powerful way to connect with any child, but especially children who have challenges with social-emotional connections. Click her eto learn about Floor Time: child-directed play. On Autism Navigator, learn how to support social communication development, and transactional supports to promote learning.

More resources

There are helpful resources at https://brightandquirky.com which has webinars with leading experts on how to support kids who are gifted AND autistic (or have other behavioral issues).

And for your child, here’s my list of Children’s Picture Books about Autism and other “quirky kids” stories. Seeing themselves reflected in a book might be helpful for them.

7 thoughts on “Autistic? Or Just “Quirky”?

  1. Sleepless

    Thank you for this amazing summary! The circle is definitely a better way of thinking about autism (and kids in general). Your analysis of when to test and not to test is great, but I think there’s another downside worth mentioning. The unfortunate truth is that many healthcare professionals, including pediatricians, begin to use the diagnosis as a final explanation of other issues. Is he very distracted? That’s consistent with autism. He has trouble sleeping? That’s consistent with autism. Poor appetite? That’s consistent with autism. They then don’t feel a lot of urgency in finding a cause or a remedy for these situations. The truth is, we started to get much better answers and approaches when we stopped telling new professionals about the diagnosis. It builds on the testing adage you mentioned, “what you will do with the results and how it will be helpful to you to have the results”. I’d add to that, “and rely on the results as long as they’re a helpful model for better care”.

    Reply
    1. Janelle Durham Post author

      You’re absolutely right about this possible pitfall. I think we can all do this… “well, x happens because he’s autistic” or my son will even say “I don’t have to behave well because I’m autistic.” It can be tricky to be aware of and accommodate the challenges without using them as an excuse not to try other remedies.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Autistic? Or Just “Quirky”? — More Good Days – Parenting Blog | jofarmer

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  4. Sarah

    This article was so well written, brilliantly laid out and extremely helpful to me. I struggle with if I should test my son too., largely for many of the reasons you mentioned. He has so many strengths, but also a few noticeable behaviors hat I do wonder about. Would you mind sharing what became harder for your child when kindergarten started? That is exactly the hose of life we are in now. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Janelle Durham Post author

      He had a hard time waiting for his turn in group time and kept interrupting. He struggled a lot with transitions – stopping an activity he enjoyed when it was time to move on to the next one. The teacher would ask them to put away materials and get ready for lunch and he would have a massive meltdown which disrupted the whole class in their attempts to make that transition. At recess, when the other kids wanted to play what he did, it was great. But when they wanted to change games he would get very angry and threaten to hurt them. He just needed more adult support with preparing for and making the transition than the teacher was able to provide while supervising 23 other kids, so having an IEP allowed them to bring in resource room staff to help with these transitions.

      Reply

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