If your child shows no interest in their peers and does not want to play with others, it could be a sign of autism.
Every child develops at a different rate, however. A lack of interest in peers can even out as the child ages. Some children are inherently shy or anxious, or they have limited experience with other kids and therefore can be less interested in peer interactions.
If you are concerned about developmental delays or the potential for autism, talk to your child’s doctor.
What Does Lack of Interest in Peers Signal?
Generally, toddlers will start out playing side by side with other toddlers by the time they are 18 months old. By 3 years old, they will start to play more cooperatively, and they will be excited to see other kids.
This is not always the case, however. Every child is different. While many children are shy, some children may even suffer from social anxiety. These children may avoid peer interactions altogether.
A lack of interest in peers is also a common early sign of autism. The CDC publishes that if a child does not have a desire to play with other children by at least age 3, it should trigger concern.
Socialization & ASD
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder involving language delays, impaired social functioning, and communication issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes that children with autism:
- Often want to be alone.
- Make limited or no eye contact.
- Will not engage in pretend play.
- Have difficulties understanding others and making friends.
- Do not understand other people’s emotions or share interests with others.
- May have no interest in others at all.
Autism can be reliably diagnosed between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, but some children start school before autism signs become overly apparent.
Young toddlers and even babies who display warning signs of autism can often “even out” as they age. This means some symptoms simply fade, and some developmental delays correct. This is why an autism diagnosis is not considered steady before around age 2.
A lack of interest in peers can be related to limited social interactions prior to beginning school. Once a child is involved in more social situations, they may begin to show more interest.
On its own, limited peer interest does not mean your child is autistic. If a lack of interest toward peers is present along with other red flags that can signify autism, talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns.
Developmental Screenings for Autism
Your child should be screened specifically for autism at their well-child checkup at both 18 months and 24 months. The pediatrician may use a variety of autism screening tests, but the M-CHAT-R/F, a 23-point questionnaire, is the most commonly used screening tool. If you have concerns about your child’s socialization and suspect autism at any age:
- Talk to your child’s doctor right away.
- Ask about the developmental screening.
- Track detailed observations on your child’s development using tools like this questionnaire. You can then share these with your child’s doctor.
- Obtain a referral to a specialist for specific diagnostic testing. If your pediatrician suspects autism, they will likely refer you to a pediatric psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, or developmental specialist.
- Get a free evaluation through your state’s public early childhood intervention system.
When to Be Concerned
If your young toddler shies away from social interactions and is not interested in their peers, this is not necessarily a major cause for concern. It is certainly something to keep an eye on and talk to your doctor about if it persists.
You can encourage your child to socialize by:
- Talking them through social situations.
- Presenting them with more opportunities to interact with others.
- Telling and showing them stories of children interacting.
- Roleplaying to teach them how to engage in peer interactions.
It can be concerning when school-aged children and beyond are not interested in their peers and socially isolate themselves . It can signify a mental health disorder, such as an anxiety or mood disorder.
When lack of peer interaction and interest is coupled with other communication and language deficits, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests, this can indicate autism.
Improving Peer Relationships for Children With Autism
Peer relationships are important across all ages of development, for people with all kinds of developmental disorders. People with autism often have difficulties making and keeping friends, but studies show that they overwhelmingly crave these connections.
Therapies and interventions that involve the family, caregivers, teachers, and professionals can help to build socialization skills. Learning in a safe environment with familiar people can prepare children to interact with neurotypical individuals in the real world.
Occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and behavior interventions like applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy can all help to improve social and communication skills. These therapies help a child learn how to appreciate and interact with their peers more effectively, and this can build a foundation that allows them to form lasting relationships.
- Important Milestones: Your Child by Three Years. (December 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (August 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet. (March 2020). National Institute of Health (NIH) National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
- How Pediatricians Screen for Autism. (December 2019). American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Concerned About Your Child’s Development? (February 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Easterseals Make the First Five Count. (2020). Easterseals.
- What Is “Early Intervention”? (December 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- How People With Autism Forge Friendships. (April 2020). Scientific American.