Autism vs. Normal Toddler Antics
Taking a toddler's obsessive behaviors into consideration with a host of other behaviors is important for determining whether or not you should be worried.
"Autism is never one behavior in isolation; it's always a profile of characteristics," Ruttenberg says. In addition to fixating on toys or specific things, autistic children don't bond with their parents. They don't get a joyful expression when their parents try to interact, they don't look people in the eyes and they don't communicate. Autistic children may also have sensory sensitivities, making them unable to tolerate sounds and touch.
Autistic children don't engage in pretend play, and may fixate on one aspect of a toy, rather than the toy itself, such as the spinning wheel of a car. And when they become fixated on something, such as a toy, they cannot be distracted from it.
"Clinical obsession means it's destructive emotionally when the object is taken away," says Dr. Norman Hoffman, author of Bad Children Can Happen to Good Parents. Having a security blanket or a favorite toy is a healthy behavior for a toddler, so you have to look at how long the behavior lasts and whether or not it can be interrupted.
"It's more than obsessing; a truly autistic child has a cluster of behaviors," Dr. Hoffman says. "But the more stimulation and direction you give that child, the better he or she will do later, which is why early diagnosis is important."
If you think, for whatever reason, that your child may be autistic, go with your instincts and have him or her checked. "Don't waste time, and don't delay a good intervention and treatment," says Ruttenberg, who often sees parents get talked out of dealing with the early signs of autism in their children. "I always think it's better to have concerns checked out by a specialist."
Just Being a Toddler
When you can rule out autism as the reason behind your toddler's obsessive behavior, you may still be left with a little person who drives everyone in the house crazy with the same movies, the same toys, and the same books. So what's going on?
"Toddlers get all caught up in things—a new toy or a new activity—because every time they do it they get better at it, and they feel good about doing it, and they feel good about themselves," says Dr. Carl Arinoldo, a psychologist and co-author of Essentials of Smart Parenting.
In other words, your little one is just trying to get the hang of whatever he or she seems obsessed with, which doesn't present a problem as long as your child can be distracted for a little while to learn something new or participate in another activity. Just keep in mind that your child will likely go right back to whatever he was fixated on before you distracted him.
"Give the child time to obsess with the new item, and then suggest a new activity," Dr. Arinoldo says. "And don't get mad—that could lead to manipulation if the child senses a way to gain control." Rest assured that your little one will grow out of this obsessing phase. According to Dr. Arinoldo, by 4 or 5, most kids stop obsessing and become more flexible.
Nothing is more frightening to parents than a warning sign—any warning sign, whether a probable concern or not. While some degree of obsessing over toys is normal for toddlers, when that behavior appears with other red flags, such as a lack of bonding, eye contact, and communication, you should have your child checked. Noticing potential signs of autism and the uncertainty these signs cause are emotionally difficult for all parents.
"Be vigilant," Dr. Arinoldo says. "And if you have any doubts, understand that it never hurts to ask a professional." It only takes time and the confidence to trust your parenting instincts.