5 Signs of Autism That I Missed During Childhood, From an Autistic Psychologist

In hindsight, my sensory stuff has always been there

<p>d3sign / Getty Images</p>

d3sign / Getty Images

Since April is Autism Acceptance Month, I have been thinking about my own neurodivergence. I am an autistic psychologist who specializes in identifying autism. For years, I assessed other people without realizing I was part of the community I was trying to support. It was not until I found a community with other autistics through social media that I began to realize there was a reason why I felt so connected to these clients—because we had something in common!

After learning I was autistic, I began looking back and noticing things that seemed obvious in hindsight but had been overlooked for years. Many autistic adults I know have shared similar “aha” moments after realizing their neurotype.


Unfortunately, many autistic people are not identified until later in life. There are documented disparities in autism diagnoses, with BIPOC autistic people less likely to receive an accurate diagnosis at a young age. Women, trans, and nonbinary autistics also go undiagnosed compared to cisgender men and boys.

I was misdiagnosed the first time I was evaluated for autism because of my evaluator's perception of what autism is “supposed to” look like. I also made it into my 30s before anyone realized I was autistic. This includes the supervisors and experts who trained me in diagnosing autism in my clients.

Here are five signs I overlooked in my childhood that might have told me I was autistic.

Atypical Early Development

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision notes that autism manifests in “the early developmental period,” though it is also noted that traits “may not fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities.”

In other words, if you are autistic, you’ve been autistic your entire life.

Some autistic people are identified at a very young age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in some cases, an autistic person can be identified as young as 18 months old. Usually, this occurs because the child is not indicating “typical” development in that they are taking longer than average to reach certain milestones, like speaking with words.

At the same time, atypical development does not always mean delays. According to my parents, I said my first sentence at 18 months of age and began using full sentences consistently shortly after, a skill that is usually developed around age three. At the time, they assumed I was just special (what parent doesn’t think that about their baby?). Now, I recognize that my early development was a sign of my autism.

Related: What Is 'High-Functioning' Autism?

Special Interests

I have always been the kind of person with intense interests. When I like something, I dive into it fully. Early in elementary school, one of my interests was wolves, so I decided to do a project on wolf populations, social behavior, and conservation. I checked out every book on wolves from the library because Google did not exist yet and spent hours putting together a long, handwritten (no computer yet) report, complete with several drawings.

Except no one had asked me to do a project. In fact, I got into trouble because I skipped actual homework assignments to work on my self-imposed wolf project.


Show me a neurotypical child who writes term papers for fun.

Social Behaviors

Many clinicians who conceptualize autism through the medical model describe autistic people as having social “deficits” and may misdiagnose autistic individuals who have close friendships because they incorrectly assume that someone who has friends cannot be autistic.

I had a best friend through elementary school, and we were both identified as autistic in adulthood. We bonded over our special interests and got along well, but we were often cut out from the rest of our classmates, including the small friend group we were part of.

Our peers thought our interests and behaviors were weird, but on the outside, we were capable of forming friendships, so our neurodivergence was overlooked. (It was also the '90s, so we might have been overlooked, anyway. The point is there is more to autistic communication than assessing whether or not someone has friends.)


From an early age, I have been able to entertain myself with activities that took up my whole attention. I mean early age, as in, my parents could leave me in the living room with minimal supervision for hours at a time because I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I did not need anyone to interact with, and I was not getting into anything that I needed to leave alone.

Like my early language development, this was simply seen as a positive, and I was left to my own devices. After all, traditional methods for identifying neurodivergence (not just autism) rely on the individual causing problems for the people around them rather than assessing their individual experience.

Related: How Hyperfocus Affects People With ADHD

Sensory Traits

Many autistic people experience either over-sensitivity to certain stimuli (sometimes referred to as being “sensory-avoidant”) or under-sensitivity (sometimes called being “sensory-seeking"). I am one of the lucky ones who has both of these traits depending on the situation. It means that I am easily understimulated, which causes boredom and agitation, and I am also easily over-stimulated, which causes overwhelm and shutdowns.


Essentially, I always need stimulation, but it has to be the exact right kind and amount of stimulation or everything will be ruined.

I have always preferred tight clothing, but before adolescence, I could not tolerate the feeling of jeans. I have always liked food with intense, spicy flavors, but certain food textures immediately make me gag. I was always moving in ways I now recognize were stims because the sensation of the movement helped me self-regulate. In hindsight, my sensory stuff has always been there, but I did not have a name for it until recently.

Related: As an Autistic Therapist, Here Are 6 Things in My Sensory Bag That Just Make Sense

Bottom Line

It is never too late to get to know yourself better. If you suspect you might be neurodivergent, listen to experiences from that community and see what resonates. If you suspect you might be autistic, Embrace Autism has some wonderful free resources to learn more about autism and assess if these traits resonate for you. While you need an evaluation from a qualified professional to receive an official diagnosis, new research has shown that self-diagnosis has a high rate of validity in the autistic community.

If you would benefit from a confirmed diagnosis from a qualified professional, Neurodivergent Therapists lists many qualified evaluators who can help you on your journey. If not, you can also find a therapist who understands neurodivergence and can support you with your mental health.


Everyone’s process is unique, and finding the right support for you can help you better know yourself and meet your needs.

Read the original article on Verywell Mind.