Kids do the darndest things, and sometimes it's hard for parents to know what's normal toddler behavior and what's not. Autism rates are on the rise, and boys are more likely than girls to have it. A toddler who is consistently challenging might have autism, but there are several other clues to consider, as well.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that symptoms vary and run the gamut from mild to severe. The most common symptoms, though, are language and social/emotional difficulties. The first clue parents often get that a child has autism is that the child doesn't start talking by the age 16 months to 2 years. Other clues include failure to make eye contact and a significant inability to engage with others. Many children with autism have eating and sleeping disturbances. Children with autism are prone to meltdowns and temper tantrums, but bad behavior generally isn't the only symptom.
The most common cause of bad behavior in toddlers is simply that they don't yet know how to process daily frustrations. After all, they're not called the "terrible twos" for nothing. Toddlers lack the language skills, emotional development and abstract thinking to express their needs and solve problems. An occasional temper tantrum is normal toddler behavior, but many consistently challenging toddlers are later diagnosed with ADHD, sensory processing issues, developmental delays, autism or language delays. Frequent moves or other life disruptions can prompt challenging behavior. In rarer cases, bad behavior sometimes signals abuse or neglect.
The toddler years are a time of rapid development, and even the most even-keeled little one occasionally has a meltdown. Consistent daily routines, reasonable but fair expectations and quick, loving responses from parents can help reduce outbursts. If your child lacks language skills, she might be frustrated with her inability to communicate. Teaching toddlers a few basic signs can help reduce frustration and speed up the language acquisition process. Many libraries and recreation centers offer baby sign language classes. Transitions are often hard for toddlers. Advance notice of changes in the schedule help. Tell your child a few minutes before it's time to clean up toys, go to bed or get in the car. Some kids benefit from a visual cue, such as a picture, in addition to a verbal cue.
If your toddler behaves badly for months on end, in spite of your best efforts to reduce his frustration and teach skills, a professional evaluation is probably the next step. Most pediatricians are trained to spot autism early, but share your concerns with your doctor. In many cases, your doctor can ease your mind that your toddler is exhibiting normal toddler developmental behavior. On the other hand, if your child has autism or another condition, early intervention ensures the best outcome.