Autism and the 2-Year-Old Brain

I am certain that one of the ideas I have about autistics will likely annoy some people because they are bound to misunderstand it. That idea is that autistics essentially have the brains of two-year-olds. While the feedback to that linked post was all positive, I still don’t want people to misunderstand what I mean when I talk about this topic, because I know people will mistakenly think I’m just saying autistics are “childlike” or some such nonsense, or that we’re “retarded” (too bad that word hasn’t been quite retired). However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

At the same time, it occurred to me that we could look at some traits of 2-year-olds and see if my thesis is correct.

First, I want to quote a comment made on one of my past posts:

If autistic people missed part of a brain update around age 2, it would make a lot of sense to have a really good long-term memory but not so good short-term memory. Isn’t one of the main functions of a 2-year-old’s memory to learn as much new information for use for the rest of his life? At that stage in life, I would imagine long term memory would be a much better investment than short-term memory.

I think this is probably true. It would, I think, explain this aspect of the way our memories work. It would also explain why many are more visual (at the cusp of learning language, the child would actually be more visually-oriented) and also why many are good at seeing patterns (finding the patterns of the world is vital to living in it), as these traits continue to get developed through the delay. And we also know that delays in development can result in improvements in function.

So, that having been said, I want to look at the traits of 2-year-olds.

  • Temper tantrums are common in this age group.
  • They may play with other children for a short time, but aren’t yet capable of true sharing.
  • They find it hard to wait or make choices.
  • They can’t understand reason or control their impulses.
  • They love to copy adults, in both appearance and activity.
  • They may be bossy.
  • Two year olds have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.
  • By three, most children can follow complex instructions.

We could rephrase these such that they sound like you’re describing an autistic person. While we know there’s a huge difference between tantrums and meltdowns, that difference may not be quite so clear-cut among 2-year-olds. Older autistic children typically only play with other children for a short time and have a hard time sharing. I know I have a hard time waiting, and I have a hard time making choices (as my wife can attest when we’re trying to pick a restaurant).

An interesting one is the one about understanding reason and controlling their impulses. The latter is certainly true to a certain degree. That’s our weak executive function–weak also in 2-year-olds. But if anything, we’re hyper-rational. If there’s anything we understand, it’s reason. I think, though, that our cognitive delay may in fact be among the reasons for our strong rationality. It’s more developed, because developed more slowly. Not to mention that it’s a replacement for our weak executive function.

Eulalia is essentially copying adults (or films or TV shows). We tend to be bossy. My son has a hard time distinguishing between the cartoons he watches and reality–he’s always asking me for clarification of what can and cannot happen in the real world compared to the cartoons he watches. And it’s well-established that we all have a hard time following complex instructions, but rather need things broken down.

The fact that many of these traits continue as children become older, and often into adulthood, suggests the mature-yet-2-year-old brain hypothesis–a form of neoteny–may be worth further investigation.


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