Lining Up Toys: Developmentally Appropriate Play or a Sign of Autism?

After a discussion with a friend about my preschooler’s uncommon interests and behaviors (What is hyperlexia?), she asked if he ever lined up his toys when he was a toddler.

“Cause my daughter did that when she was little,” she said.  “And I would mix them all up, and it would drive her crazy!”

So it got me thinking, did my son ever line up his toys?

You mean, like this?  This is a picture of my preschooler when he was a toddler (21 months specifically) lining up his vehicles.

At the time, I was a little panicked.  Why is he lining up his toys like that?  Is lining up toys an early indicator for Autism?  From experience, I know that children with Autism tend to love having a sense of order.  Do I need to bring this up to his pediatrician?  A Google search made me question his play habits even more.

I am here to tell you today that it is okay if your toddler is lining up toys, and though it may be an early sign for Autism (and that’s okay!), it very well may be developmentally appropriate for him/her to do so.

There is actually a purpose for toddlers to line up their toys, and they are gaining specific math skills, categorizing and ordering, by doing so.  Further, it is a precursor to the imaginary play that preschoolers participate in.  Why it is so disconcerting is that they don’t have the verbal skills or the cognitive reasoning to explain to you that is what they are doing.  But that doesn’t mean that the skill aquisition isn’t happening!

As children graduate from toddlerhood and enter the preschool years, these lining up skills move into something deeper and more meaningful.

For example, today my preschooler lined up his vehicles, similarly to when he was a toddler.

But today, lining up cars is a means for a pretend play scenario.

It turns out, he lined them up for his monster trucks to crush.

And they didn’t stay lined up for long.  There was a lot of monster truck mayhem happening here and snippets of pretend play language was heard:

Time to crush some cars!  My friends are gonna help too. This one is called Double Trouble.  Ram is my friend.  Big Foot is my friend.  We’re gonna smash and bash.

He then proceeds to crush the cars with numerous monster trucks (sound effects included).

A similar behavior is when toddlers line up fridge magnets.  A preschooler may line up magnets, as well, but for a specific play scenario.  After asking my preschooler what’s going on with those vehicles, he started to push the vehicle magnets like buttons and responded:

This is a car computer.  You hit forklift and then you can swipe and go up and down.  And you open it up and it’s a big giant drone!  Then what you do next is you hit exit and then you get to play with it! You can play a game of cars with it.

In this scenario, the vehicles were actually a touch screen computer; he has a purpose to lining up the magnets.

Did your child line up their toys as a toddler?  What kinds of items did they line up?
If your child is exhibiting multiple red flags or you just have questions about your child’s behavior, it doesn’t hurt to talk to your pediatrician or to a local mental health professional.  Just know that the range of Autism varies widely.  A good resource for further reading is through The National Autism Foundation: Signs of Autism.

6 Comments

  1. Lovely post. Thank you for sharing.
    Lining up toys is a schema and is very much part of a typical child’s development. A child with autism tends to play with toys in an inappropriate way such as spinning the cars wheels in front of their face.
    I wrote a post about schemes that you may find interesting here.
    https://oldhouseintheshires.com/2017/05/30/how-can-i-provide-stimulating-play-opportunities-for-my-young-child/

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I know! I agree….your son sounds exactly like my son at that age.
        I’m just writing a post about how he had sensory overload at pre-school age…he hated to wear trousers or scratchy clothing, would suddenly lose control after too much going on around him and really struggled with his anger at aged 4. That was one of the reasons we got him heavily involved with sport and he loves hockey and rugby especially. Team sports have really helped him thrive.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for sharing! We had him in T-ball this summer and are trying soccer this fall. Soccer is a lot of running, so we are hoping it will be s good choice. His favorite part of T-ball was running the bases! Team sports can definitely be tricky for these kids, but like you said I do think they can be so helpful, too!

        Like

  2. Love this. My son does happen to be autistic, a brilliant one at that. The dirst time he lined up anythinf, he had just turned one. He had about 20 little rubber duckies, the tiny ones. He lined them all up facing the same way and in color order (black all the way to white). I actually never caught on to the color thing til a year later when I saw the pic and went “oh my….he knows the color wheel….but…how?” I get it now. Hyperlexia and splinter skills. Its fun amd to him makes all kinds of sense!

    Liked by 1 person

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