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Is Your Child Just Shy, or Could It Be Autism?


Some toddlers develop an uncanny ability to climb their parents as if they were trees—clawing their way up from the floor to the comforting nook of Mom or Dad’s shoulder, where they bury their faces. Clingy behavior is natural. Most toddlers go through it, and it might come back for some on the first day of school when separation anxiety peaks.


Shy children may avert their eyes, hide behind a parent, or even cry when meeting new people. These behaviors can also look like the warning signs of autism. So, is your child just shy, or could it be autism?


Social Communication

Shy kids will usually “warm up” after some encouragement and a chance to become familiar with new faces or places. Initially, they may avoid eye contact with new people and look to Mom or Dad for support and reassurance.

Autistic kids, on the other hand, rarely “warm up.” They tend to avoid eye contact not only with others but also with their parents. They often won’t imitate behavior, like clapping or pointing, and won’t use gestures themselves to communicate.


Autistic kids may fixate on odd objects like ceiling fans or toilets. They prefer to play alone or engage in “parallel play” alongside another child without interacting.


Repetitive Behavior and Routine

Shy kids will eventually try new things and become comfortable in new places with parental reassurance and encouragement. Autistic kids, on the other hand, can become violently upset with a change in routine. They also can have extreme reactions to foods or clothing with different textures.


Autistic children may either become overwhelmed with sensory input (sensory avoidant) or seek extreme sensory input (sensory seeking) to help them cope with their environment.


Either way, autistic kids develop “self-soothing,” repetitive behaviors like rocking, hand flapping, or head banging.


Echolalia and Perseveration

Shy children may seem quiet and reserved, but they’ll nod their heads, point, respond appropriately to simple questions, or be able to say, “I’m scared” or “I don’t want to.”


Autistic kids are more likely to repeat what someone says to them (echolalia) and often have moderate to severe problems with language development.


There are ways to help autistic children with social skills. Displaying acceptable and appropriate social behaviors may never be entirely comfortable for an autistic person, but it can help social interaction feel less distressing. If you suspect your child is showing signs of autism, consult a pediatrician or neuropsychologist specializing in developmental disorders for an evaluation.


Early intervention can help you get the services your child will need from their schools, but trust your instincts: if the evaluation seems off, and you don’t recognize your child in it, get a second opinion from a professional recommended by other parents to determine if your child is just shy or if there are signs of autism.


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