Lining Up Toys Doesn’t Mean Your Toddler Has Autism


After head-banging (see Why Head Banging Doesn’t Make Your Toddler Autistic), this is the other common behavior that seems to terrify parents of young children.  Seeing a row of vehicles on the carpet makes parents absolutely sprint to search online.

Well, I want ALL of you parents to take a deep breath, and then exhale.  The truth is that there are a few other behaviors that are more indicative of autism than head banging.

Here is what I think that row of tiny toys often means:

Very young children have a natural interest in order and understanding spatial relationships.  Kids like routine and familiarity way more than most adults.  Some children who line up toys are just experimenting with how lines are formed or seeing how long a row of cars they can create.  Some will even match colors or sizes.

It is OK if Lightening McQueen has to be the first in the line at all times.  Sometimes rigid routines have a beneficial developmental purpose.  When your child tells you that you just read Goodnight Moon wrong (you just paraphrased the story get him to bed), he is really saying that he likes the familiarity and the orderliness of hearing those words said in exactly that order.  Boring to you, comforting to him.  If it brings on a tantrum, your child could be gifted.  If it elicits self-harm or harming you, you might have a bigger problem.

Experts in early literacy will tell you that a child’s fondness for hearing the same story over and over is actually a developmental milestone in phonemic awareness, the cornerstone of language mastery.


Controlling their environment and creating patterns is another reason to line up those cars.  Very young children (under an 18-month cognitive level) do not create complex play schemes about races or adventures.  Lining them up is developmentally correct play for these children, and it can easily expand with a little demonstration and engagement with you.  Build a garage from Megablox or MagnaTiles, and see if your child will enjoy driving each one into the garage to go to “sleep at night”.  Don’t mention that in real life we all use our garages as storage units, not vehicle parking!  Typically-developing children may even repeat this game independently later the same day, having learned a new way to play with their toys.  Or they will hand you a car and say “night-night?” so that you can play this game with them again!

When does lining up toys become troublesome?

When it is the ONLY way that your child interacts with those toys, or with any toys. And when you try to expand their play as above, they just about lose their lunch because it is all about rigid routines, not object exploration.  If your child is on the spectrum, that line of cars is part of their environmental adaptation plan for security and stability; it’s not actually PLAY at all.  There isn’t a sense of playfulness about changing things around when it is a matter of bringing order to a system that struggles with feeling safe.  If your child is clearly not using these objects for imaginative play by 3, then you should explore a developmental evaluation so that you understand what is going on.

A lack of developmentally-appropriate play skills is certainly a concern to a child development specialist, but it still doesn’t translate into autism.  

Here are a few of the behaviors in 1-3 year-olds that concern me much more than lining up toys:

  • little or no eye contact when requesting something from you.  They look at the object or the container, not at you.
  • no response when her name is called, or not looking toward a specific person when the name of a family member is mentioned.
  • using an adult’s hand as a “tool” to obtain objects rather than gesturing, pointing or making eye contact to engage an adult for assistance.
  • a non-verbal toddler (over 18 months old) that doesn’t use gestures such as pointing or babbling to communicate needs or desires.

Always discuss your concerns with your pediatrician, and in the U.S., consider a free evaluation through your local Early Intervention program if you continue to see behaviors that keep you up at night.  You do not need a doctor’s referral for these free services!  

Therapy services are free as well, and they continue until your child is eligible for school-related services provided by your local district.

Looking for a guide to help you with toilet training a child with ASD?

Here you go!

front cover

The Practical Guide to toilet Training the Autistic Child:  Sensory-Motor Secrets for Success is my newest book!  This is a manual for parents and professionals to make potty training less confusing and stressful.

  • A comprehensive readiness checklist makes it easy to know what skills need to be developed.
  • The resource list helps you pick out the best equipment to make training safer and faster.
  • The revolutionary concept of Collaborative Diapering allows ASD kids of any age and any level of ability to start making progress toward independence right away!
  • Narrative stories of 3 fictionalized kids and their families make the concepts come alive, and help families feel like they are seen and understood.
  • The tough parts aren’t ignored; they are addressed directly.  Smearing and playing with poop, defiance, withholding are all discussed because these are some of the biggest “bumps in the road”.
  • Independence isn’t achieved until a child can use the bathroom in places other than their home and school.  Learning to use an unfamiliar bathroom takes skill, and this book covers how to make it happen.

Buy your paperback copy today on (where else?) Amazon !

Want a printable e-book instead?  Grab it at Your Therapy Source

boy tow rolls on eyes

By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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