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Home Family Parenting Advice Distinguishing between autism and a nervous habit — Good Parenting

Distinguishing between autism and a nervous habit — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 3-year-old has a weird habit of touching his face in a repetitive pattern. He does it once or twice at a time, maybe a couple times a day. His preschool teacher mentioned it to me at the mid-year conference, so he’s doing it at school, too. Could this be a sign of autism?

What Are We In For?

Don’t miss last week’s column Dealing with a challenging child – Good Parenting

Dear What IF?

This behavior alone is not a symptom of autism, which is characterized by behaviors to limit his social stimulation. Eye contact, reading and responding appropriately to others’ emotions and carrying on a meaningful two-way conversation are overwhelming to a person with autism. A person with autism may have self-stimulating behaviors, such as face touching, to block out the social stimulation he can’t handle well. Learn more about symptoms to look for and terminology used from a helpful online guide for determining if a child has autism.

Your son would also have some of the other symptoms such as:

  • Strong need for physical order (obsessively lining up toys or books on a shelf)
  • Inability to easily manage a change in routine
  • Frequent trouble or disinterest in playing with other children
  • Sensory issues

If you believe your son does match these descriptions, you can have a free evaluation by the Child Find office of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, 410-766-6662. Other counties also have Child Find services. The services include observation/assessment and consultation regarding any delays or deviations in development which could impact a child’s success in school, now or later. The evaluation includes testing speech and physical skills as well as asking you about his behavior that could indicate problems along the Autism Spectrum. A professional screening is the first step toward gathering information and resources to make life better for your son.

If there isn’t enough evidence to qualify his habit as a symptom of autism, he might just have a simple nervous mannerism. Everyone has them, but not all mannerisms look “weird” to an observer. Children and adults unconsciously do things when bored, tired, anxious or agitated. One person might tap a foot, another touch his face and another clear her throat. Whatever it is, the brain automatically associates the behavior with maintaining or restoring calm.

Children can be helped to break a habitual mannerism that could cause embarrassment or harm, such as thumb sucking and nail biting. Or the child may find his own motivation to discontinue it. Typically around age 4 children form mental impressions of what others think of them as they are driven to seek peer approval. Any behavior that looks babyish — thumb sucking, blanky toting — is perceived as being disapproved of. Your son may learn that he doesn’t like the stares or comments from his friends when he practices his face touching. He will get better at being discreet about it and may eventually drop the behavior with conscious effort.

Sage parenting advisors, Dr. William and Martha Sears offer tips for easing your child away from a socially or physically harmful habit. What I like best about their sensitive approach is the recognition that calming behaviors need to be replaced, not just eliminated.

If your son is otherwise developing normally (as confirmed by his teacher and healthcare provider) my advice is to wait and see if he is bothered by this mannerism when he’s a little bit older. At that time, age 4 or 5 or 6, you can work with him to identify and reduce the triggers in his environment that activate his self-calming, and help him learn new ways of coping that are not bothersome to others.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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