My daughter Alicia is three and a half and an introvert. This is not in any way a surprise: both my husband and I are introverts too. That shocks some people, because we are still quite social – heck, my husband’s job requires meeting strangers, speaking publicly, and attending social events. But if you gave us our choice of a dream weekend off, I guarantee it would involve a quiet few days together and not an “everyone is invited” party.
In my daughter’s case, introversion manifested early. This is a child who, at about six months of age, wanted her bedtime routine to be “read me a book and then put me alone in my crib to play until I tuck myself in.” As soon as she was mobile, she wanted to play by herself. My son Ben, who is much more extroverted than any of the rest of us, constantly wants my attention; Alicia wants to know where I am, but I only have a place in her games when she invites me in.
As she’s getting older, her introversion becomes more and more obvious. Here’s a list of traits of introverted children: they do more listening than talking; they talk to family members but not to strangers; they like to spend time in their room with the door closed; they spend hours alone reading (or looking at books if they’re too young to read) or engaging in elaborate imaginative play. This basically sounds like someone has a camera in our house.
Frankly, I’m happy for Alicia. She is delightfully independent; she doesn’t get upset if I’m working and I can’t play with her right that second. I love listening in on the conversations she roleplays between toys – something she’s been doing since she was less than two years old – and the little songs she sings to herself. And believe me, after years of battling over bedtime with Ben, I practically wanted to weep when it became obvious that Alicia’s usually the first to declare it’s bedtime.
But there is a big problem that’s emerging, and the problem is not with Alicia: it’s with people around her. I am astounded at how little people in general, and even medical professionals who see dozens to hundreds of children, understand an introverted child. And what is really upsetting is that their lack of understanding sometimes results in a “diagnosis” – for things that are perfectly typical for introverted children.
A good example: at least three times in the past two years, Alicia has convinced people that she has a hearing impairment. Twice this happened at the child care room at the gym; I came back from my workout to have a sombre conversation with a volunteer: “Have you ever had her hearing tested? We asked her if she wanted to join the game with the other kids and she didn’t even look up.” (The second time I proved her hearing was fine by whispering, “Alicia, do you want to go get some Smarties?” I’ve never seen her cross a room so fast.)
Okay, but those are volunteers. They’re not trained, and they’re just trying to help. But last week Alicia went in for a routine public health assessment; in our area, every child meets with a nurse for a quick check at three and a half. I suspected what was going to happen, and I was right: I got the autism screening questions. “Does she make eye contact with you? Does she pretend to comfort a doll or stuffed animal? Does she respond to other children when they invite her to play? Does she come to you for a hug if she falls down?” All of these happened after the nurse called her name, and Alicia pointedly looked away and continued playing with the toy blocks on the table.
Now, I know that some things about Alicia match symptoms of autism – as with anything, some behaviors will overlap between neurotypical kids and kids on the spectrum. And I know that some parents genuinely don’t know that their child’s behavior isn’t typical for their age, and that early intervention is enormously helpful. Alicia’s speech is harder to understand than many three and a half year olds – something I genuinely did want to follow up with at this appointment, and something that the nurse noticed quickly upon us entering the room. But as she was asking me these questions, Alicia was looking me in the eye as she told me about how the puppy in the book she was looking at was sad, and later interrupted to tell me – but not the nurse – a story about the picture she’d colored.
Totally typical for an introverted kid. Several of the things she was doing were already answering the nurse’s questions – except that Alicia wasn’t directing them towards the stranger in the room. No, she directed them to me, the familiar person, just like introverted adults are more likely to chat with their friends at a party than with someone new. And because of that, we got autism screening.
It bothers me that a common character trait is so misunderstood in children. If we’re not willing to distinguish between kids who are happy to play alone and kids who won’t socialize, or between kids who prefer quiet, solo play and kids who can’t hear, how can we get kids the assistance they really need?
Alicia may need some speech therapy to help her be clearly understood. Or, she may just need to care about the person she’s speaking to. Yesterday at her gymnastics class, her enthusiastic request to her beloved coach, “Mister Nick, come play scary monsters!” was clear as a bell. Her stubborn streak doesn’t help her cause – she does what she wants when she wants, not sooner – but she’s never had any regression in her speech skills. It’s just that most of her speech isn’t for anyone but herself – and she understands what she’s saying just fine.
As I write this, I can hear Alicia in her room. As always, as she started getting tired, she went to her room and closed her door, so she could enjoy her private space. She’s playing one of her elaborate imaginary games: the dinosaurs are going on an adventure together – something involving a pony. She’s singing a song to the baby dinosaur, who’s afraid because it’s getting dark. It’s imaginative and fascinating and, yes, a bit different – but it’s not a sign of a physical or neurological problem. It’s just the sign of a little girl who sees the beauty in being alone.
(Image: Alexey Losevich/shutterstock)