Google the phrase “lining things up” and you get scary results with words like “red flag” and “inappropriate play.” You’ll see questions from parents terrified their kid lining up toys is autistic. You’ll see hindsight posts where other parents didn’t know it was A Thing and wish they’d known then. And if you’re terrified of The A Word and of your child behaving any other way than the very strict guidelines of “normal” then I guess I can see what the big deal is. But really….no. It’s not a horrible thing. It’s just a different way to play. For a child to bring order into a chaotic, unpredictable world. It’s fun. What’s so inappropriate about that?
This weekend, at the age of a few months shy of 5 years old, Lady Bug lined up some toys for the first time. And the whole family got really excited! Here was a new thing that she had never done before. Not only that, but her first ever lining up had a kind of beautiful symmetry and color balance to it. I took a picture and posted it on facebook, proud that she had met this new milestone. In the days since we have found in different places around the house little toys lined up in different arrangements. Each one gives me a new glimpse into what my minimally communicative little girl thinks of the world. All of them facing the same way tells me that she recognizes that these toys aren’t just random shapes, but she recognizes that they have faces and a way that they’re looking, and can recognize it across different species and toy styles. Two sides angled to look towards the middle suggests to me that she’s not playing from a God’s eye view, but that she herself is included in whatever story is happening in her head as she places them just so. The little girl facing a line of animals all facing her tells me she knows the difference between humans and animals. Is she envisioning herself as that girl toy, leading a parade of animals? These scenes that she makes and we find are hidden treasures that delight her family. It’s clearly making her happy, or she wouldn’t be doing it. Shouldn’t that make you happy about it, too?
Builder Boy did a lot of lining things up when he was little. Early Bird never did, or at least didn’t do it in a manner that we recognized. I didn’t know it was a sign of autism for Builder Boy; I thought he just liked order and was having fun. His Easter Eggs, cars, trains, things made of blocks, always faced the same way. I just figured he was orderly. There is nothing inherently scary about this form of play. In fact, I do my own grown-up version of it.
I love organizing books on bookshelves. It’s incredibly soothing to me to take out of order books and arrange them (alphabetically by author’s last name if fiction, Dewey Decimal System if non-fiction.) When I’m overwhelmed by things, like needing to clean the messy house, I often start with the science collection on my mantle. It’s not the highest priority, but making sure each specimen is exactly as it should be along the narrow ledge makes me happy. This year I got Ikea shelves for my crafting supplies in the master bedroom and it’s immensely satisfying to organize my supplies and put them in a pleasing arrangement. I bet there are a lot of adults, neurotypical adults, who feel better putting things in order. So why is it so wrong for kids to arrange their own order? I’ll tell you why: it’s not. But some people just can’t handle kids playing differently.
Yes, some neurotypical kids go through a lining up phase, without ever being autistic. Yes, lining up things combined with other behaviors is an indicator of autism. Guess what, there’s no changing if your kid is autistic, and it’s okay if they are. No, your kid isn’t automatically not autistic if they don’t line up things. It’s just one of those things that people seem to freak out about when it’s nothing to fear. Try not to freak out about it, okay? I promise: it’s not the end of the world.