Over my 14 years as an Early Years Professional the whole ‘my child lines their toys up, should I be worried?’ question was asked quite regularly. Its often thought of to be a sign of Autism and so its seem almost as a ‘symptom’. My response was always along the lines of ‘what are they gaining from lining up?’ as that often could mean the difference between an Autistic view of the world or just a child who enjoys lining things up.
I have to admit that lining things up has been something J has done so long that I cant remember when it started. It definitely wasn’t one of the first signs that concerned me. My concerns were his regression in his communication to the point where crying or laughing were the only real forms his used. He didn’t react to his name, or sounds the same as others his age, and he would develop ‘obsessions’ (it started as opening and closing doors, drawers, cupboards and you couldn’t stop or face a day long meltdown). Once he spent 15 minute opening and closing the same door in church.
J’s lining up started with lining cars up. He was very specific and would put them bumper to bumper and facing the same way. He would get frustrated if any of them were knocked or removed. When out and about he would line up sugar and sauce packets in the restaurants/café. I wasn’t overly concerned, after all that’s the way cars drive isn’t it? Following each other in a row? The problem we had was that at this point cars and vehicles was the only toys he would play with. We didn’t know how he’d react to other resources. Soon after we found he would line pretty much everything up-magnets on the fridge, stones in the garden etc.
It started to become obvious that it wasn’t just a way to sort toys or following a game. It was his form of interacting with items. I believe its calming for J and puts the world in order. He can control this and there’s no pressure on him to conform, interact, talk, form play sequences. Here lies the difference between Autism and lining up as part of play. Children with Autism/ASD often have limited play skills and can lack the imagination to use resources as neurologically typical children will explore them. Another child may line things up because they are sorting into colour/type/size, and consciously making the decision to line up as part of a game (or just for fun). A child with Autism is probably seeking some form of sensory input from it, or doesn’t have play skills to do anything else with the item so reverts to what they are comfortable doing.
I have noticed that as J’s play skills develop his lining up has changed. It is seen more when he is anxious, not sure what else to do or needs his own space to chill out after a sensory focused activity (such as being around people or doing one of his therapy activities). Where he used to line up fridge magnets he now explores them and talks about what they are and plays ones he likes at the top. However, as one skills develops his coping mechanism shift. When we are out and about he will seek out already formed lines. He wants to walk along the kerb, follow the line of the football pitch on the field or place items along the lines of a table. I think this is because is more aware of his surrounding now but isn’t comfortable enough yet to let go of that security blanket of having lines. Once he finds the lines you can see him physically relax.
Just to show that you don’t always need to panic if your child starts lining things up here Jemma from Thimble and Twig whose 2 year old in NOT diagnosed with Autism says…
“My son isn’t autistic but he also used to do this for about a year when he was 2-3 years old. I’ve no idea why! But I used to have scenes like this all over the house.”
Sometimes children just like lining things up, especially younger children. There are schemas such as transporting, positioning and connecting (BBC website has a great introduction to schemas here). These are very popular with children under 5 and schemas are often used to help plan early years learning activities. However, if you ever have any concerns I would definitely speak to your health visitor, teacher/early years provider or local Children’s Centre. It’s better to let a professional make the judgement as to whether a child does or doesn’t have Autism so you can make sure you get the correct support.
I asked other parents with children on the Autistic Spectrum what they feel their child gets from lining up, and how they do this.
“David in particular, it’s a way of creating order out of chaos I think for him. If things are in a line they have a place, you can see if anything is missing or not where is should be. Things in a line are safe. It’s a simple way of play for him too, he struggles with imaginative play but can line things up to enjoy them. It’s also really good for grouping categories, colours, type – you name it. Which all creates order and or joy” Ann, Rainbows are Too Beautiful.
“Our best line up was all the knives and forks around the table on a Disney Cruise, the poor waiter looked more than a little startled. When she was younger the Bear carried a bag of lining up toys with her, it helped her to restore order if things in the real world were a little chaotic” Victoria, Starlight and Stories.
” …many ASD children are obsessive and love collecting things!! My sons is Thomas trains so he lines them up to look at all the colours and different types of engine! We forget his trains when we went to visit someone and instead my son got everything he could gather and lined them up. See picture attached!!! It was a way of calming his head in all the madness as the environment was different” Suzie, Mother Gets Lippy
“Lola does it with her cars all the time. She does in one particular place (the kitchen door of all places) and it seems the only thing other than an I pad to keep her attention and focus for longer than 30 minutes. It seems to calm her.” Jodie, Autism with Love
“Here’s a different style of line! Jude went through a phase of lining everything up in mirror image. So pairs of shoes either side each other, anything that has a pair that could be mirrored. He lined up every garden tool a few times so it stretched the whole width of our garden which was hilarious.I think it’s a sense of order for Jude. He can’t control the chaos of our house in general so controls what he can do. He knows he can do this so feels confident.” Alice, Living With a Jude
“My son lines everything! From toast crusts to toys. The older he’s getting (5) I don’t see as many lines. Unless he’s stressed. Then we have lots. If he has figures or vehicles he’ll happily line them up. I watch him in amazement!” Jo, First Time Valley Mam
Riko is an adult with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). It is a sub-type of ASD. Riko writes: “I line things up, not as much as a kid though. I like things to look neat, tidy and even…I felt that it had to be ‘fair’ so they all could be seen and could see equally. Now I just like to be able to see all my things and they look better lined up…I enjoy just looking at my stuff in nice, neat lines” Rikos Blog
It’s interesting reading about other families. As the saying goes ‘When you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met ONE Autistic person’.