Does Your Boy Develop Unevenly?

After hundreds of comments from moms dealing with their speech-delayed boys who walk on tiptoes or have other such idiosyncrasies, it occurred to me to write another post on the boy/autism thing.  This time, with a focus on the developmental timetable.

I have another post on how boys develop differently than girls, but to recap an important point: boys often do not follow the timetables.  In fact, they are spotty.  They grow unevenly.  At times, they will hit the developmental mark right on the money.  Other times, they will be way off.  And often, they will have some abilities way ahead for their age—while at the same time, they will have glaring weaknesses way behind for their age.

For example, when my firstborn son was 2 going on 3, he could do 100 piece puzzles from memory.  No box, no pausing.  Just snap, snap, piece after piece together.  Like a robot actually.  He even found out, by doing the puzzles on top of each other, that some of them used the same template!  For a toddler who didn’t talk yet or even say “Mommy” or “Daddy,” this was strange to us. Then when combined with some of his habits like walking on tiptoe, spinning and crashing cars (but not really playing with them), memorizing long scripts from video, repeating himself, and not pointing or gesturing, we started realizing he had some of the autism signs.

In fact, when we read down the lists of symptoms, he had lots of them.  He had language delays, some social and emotional issues, and some of the sensory signs.  He seemed to have no imagination or interest in crayons or action figures.  But he seemed way ahead in spatial skills, knew all his letters and numbers etc., had great focus, loved to be cuddled, and generally seemed bright and charming.  His motor skills were great, and any non-verbal tests he got, he passed with flying colors.  Or things that needed one-word answers he could do.  He was way ahead in some cognitive areas and way behind in others.

Then my second son came along and was the mirror image of my firstborn.  Extremely verbal, very early, artistic and creative, but way behind in motor skills.  Emotionally unstable and very anxious, he had almost all the sensory problems common to autistic children, including choking issues, hatred of socks and tags, inability to cross the midline, and freaking out sometimes.  He didn’t bond well to others (except Mom) and couldn’t do puzzles or visual tracking activities.  So even though he was talking, imaginative, and sociable enough in his own way, HE was all over the charts.  And thus possibly autistic.

Then my third boy came along.  You know the story by now.  He hit some milestones right on time (i.e. walking), hit some way early (i.e. sentences by 19months old), and some way behind (i.e. toileting issues until his fourth birthday).  And he had some strange issues (i.e. severe fear of water).  By this time, however, we had trashed the charts.  We figured he was fine!  He didn’t have to love everything 3 year olds loved, he didn’t have to talk like 3 year olds talked, and he didn’t have to fit in some “autistic Spectrum” bucket because he had some emotional immaturity. And now that he’s nearly five, we’re SURE he’s not autistic!  (or any of our other boys either).

So this is my encouragement to you if your boys are geniuses at some things but embarrassingly behind at other things.  Do you know that book, “Men are Like Waffles and Women are Like Spaghetti”?    That book effectively describes how my little boys think.  Their brains are like waffles, with separate compartments for each kind of skill or knowledge.  They can dive in real deep within any one box, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to transfer over into other boxes or compartments.  The connections aren’t there, and there isn’t much infrastructure to help them build up their weaknesses. So they grow very unevenly.  It can be worrisome for a time because their strengths get stronger but their weaknesses seem to get weaker, especially when you start comparing them to other kids.  3 year olds tend to be the most diverse.  Sometimes therapy doesn’t even seem to make a difference, at least not right away.  Little boys just plunge ahead with their strengths (what they naturally get) and prefer to stay there, enjoying it and totally oblivious to your concerns that they aren’t “normal” all around.

Consequently it is now no longer surprising to me that my six year old son currently can take apart radios and electric circuits, but doesn’t understand that if he stands close to the stairs, he might fall down them.  My almost 5 year old son can talk to me about heaven and dying, and what he wants to be when he grows up, but still hates even the tiniest drop of water on him or will change his underwear or socks if they get a speck of dirt on them.  My seven year old son currently can pass second and third grade English and Math tests, on paper, but has a five year old’s vocabulary, says “What?” a lot, and uses awkward phrases all the time.  They are just not even developers.  Some things way ahead and some things behind.  Some normal habits and some strange idiosyncrasies.

In comparison to my girl, who is precocious socially and emotionally, and has met every deadline on time, there is just no similarity.  My conclusion: It’s ok for boys to be uneven and worrisome.  That’s just often how it goes.

9 thoughts on “Does Your Boy Develop Unevenly?

  1. Thank you SO much for this post! I can’t tell you how EXTREMELY anxious I have been about my recently turned 2 little boy. He still isn’t talking either, has some of those ‘red flag’ signs I have read on so many sites about Autism and just generally confuses my motherly instinct. He too does not show any imaginative play and sometimes I feel like he doesn’t know how to play with his toys properly and yet shows beautiful signs of emotion, smiles, has no trouble adapting to different routines and has no sensory issues. I don’t know whether to go ahead and see a child psychologist in November or should I just listen to your words of wisdom. Everything that you say and write about makes sense to me and yet I feel like there is this whole ‘early intervention’ strategy going on here in Australia that if I ignore, I could miss the best in getting him the necessary help. Any further suggestions?

  2. I wanted to thank you for your last two blogs about boys (the shy child and uneven child really spoke to me). “Uneven” was such a great way to describe my eldest child’s development. There’s always a question in my mind as to whether he’s just uneven or if there is something else at play. It’s amazing how he seems to improve with age just as I’m starting to go crazy. It’s hard to know what do about starting him in kindergarten when he is all over the map emotionally, socially, and academically. I’m not sure I buy into a lot of the treatment he’s getting for sensory processing either. I’m probably blowing a lot of money on therapy that he doesn’t need. On the other hand, it’s helping him get used to working with adults because at age four he still cannot separate from me. When do you recommend having a child observed for kindergarten readiness? Is it better to just start him in school and then repeat the year? He will be too old to stay at his current preschool after age five, so we would have to find a one year program and I think too much change would be really hard on him. Anyway, I ramble. Mainly, I just really wanted to thank you for your posts because they always talk me down and seem to arrive in my inbox at a precipitous time.

  3. YES!!!! THANK YOU! I have 2 girls and a boy who is the youngest. The austism word has come up recently because he’s 21 months and not talking still. He smiles and laughs and will make eye contact. He runs around a lot yelling and babbling and biting his hand. He doesn’t always respond as if he can’t hear. But when we’re one on one and the girls aren’t jumping in interrupting I can play little games with him like walking my fingers up his leg and looking at him and making him laugh. His babysitter says he’s the happiest baby she’s ever known. And yet a few months ago my friend who has a daughter with autism watched him for a half hour and he was really tired and unhappy and she said he did some “repetitive” behavior so she was concerned. I am starting to think this autism spectrum stuff is getting a little out of hand and your stories really confirm it for me. My son is the baby and the only boy and his older sisters are loud and take up a lot of spotlight. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s learned to tune them out.

  4. Wow, it is so refreshing to do an internet search and turn up your wisdom rather than more fear-increasing sites. I’m the mother to an amazing 2.5 year old and had a respected neurologist tell me he had a “hunch” he had autism when he was just 13 months old (and the doc had spent less than 20 minutes with him)! We had taken him for some eye-rolling, which we are now certain was just his way of dealing with allergies and itchy eyes at the time. Even though we got a second opinion from a MORE respected doctor about the autism worry, I’m still haunted by that day and I find myself questioning everything my son does — most recently it’s the echolalia he’s using, but he’s also trying to construct his own sentences as well. My “gifted” sister did not talk clearly until she was three, so this is not my chief worry. He does like to spin wheels on cars, but not obsessively. He’s also very expressive and “flaps” his hands a lot — sometimes just for fun. He’s always been a quirky kid with hand habits, but he absolutely loves people, likes to be the center of attention, loves to laugh and be silly and it is truly the light of our life! My husband is creative and maybe would have fallen on the spectrum — he is highly successful in advertising. It has been my greatest challenge of being a mother — this “paranoia” but I hope that I have hidden it well from my son. Thanks again and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  5. I realize you are no longer writing but I just wanted to say how often I come to your blog to give me perspective. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your wisdom.

  6. Thanks for the perspective. I just discovered your blogs and they alleviate my anxiety about my son. I just wish you were still writing articles. We need a common sense approach to child rearing. Thanks again. I hope you and your family are well.

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