#Autism: The 12 year old toddler

The Age Gap

em>One of the most frustrating parts of raising a child on the spectrum for me is what I call the age gap. I have spoken about this before but it is something I struggle with everyday. I constantly have to remind myself to look below the surface before I react to whatever is going on.

The Disclaimer


Please keep in mind that I’m speaking only to the experience I’m having with Gavin. In the Lost and Tired family, Gavin is the best example of this phenomenon. Please don’t take this as a blanket statement about all Autistic persons. Everyone is different and so this may not apply to your situation. However, I will say that I have heard from many parents who are dealing with the exact same issues. This is not meant to be insulting to anyone, the point is to help with perspective. 

I wish there was some kind of magical truth mirror or something. This mirror would show a true reflection of who you are on the inside.

I think that many people aren’t aware of this age gap.. They aren’t aware that with kids like Gavin, looks can and will be decieving. You look at Gavin and you see a 12 year old boy throwing fit or melting down when he doesn’t get his way. However, there is quite so much more going on underneath the surface. While Gavin does have control over himself in many of these behavioral situations, this gap in age plays a huge role in his decision making process.

If you stuck Gavin in front of this special mirror or looked at him through a magic lens, you would see a small child not 12 year old boy. Gavin is emotionally stunted at about 3 or 4 years of age. His intelligence is that of a 12 year old boy but inside he is only 3 or 4 years old, emotionally.

Symbolic of the age gap

In other words, when he’s stressed out or overwhelmed he will react like a 3 or 4 year old would. So in a sense he’s an 12 year old toddler as developmentally, that’s about where he’s at. This is something that I find myself struggling with everyday.

It’s really easy to forget this when he’s in the midde of a meltdown. I tend to want to hold his accountable as an 12 year old for his behavioral choices.

The problem with that is he simply isn’t 12 years old developmentally.

For me, It’s far to easy to see someone that is just being difficult or uncooperative instead of seeing the situation for what it is. If Gavin were actually 3 years old then this behavior wouldn’t be such a hard pill to swallow. It’s age appropriate for a 3 year old have meltdowns and tantrums.

When you see Gavin melting down it’s pretty easy to assume things about him. However, the reality is far more complicated than that. It’s never a good idea to assume things about kids with Autism. While Gavin is probably not the purest example of this simply because of everything else he has going, I think the principle is the same. Many kids on the spectrum have a sizable gap between their emotional and chronological ages. Hence the developmental delay of Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

As a society and even as parents to these amazing, yet challenging kids, we should try to keep this in mind.

It’s really important to keep perspective when dealing with these very special children because it will help you to better understand their behavior.

Disciplining your child is a very difficult part of being a special needs parent. Trying to find that balance between real world accountability and what they can actually be held accountable for is a never ending struggle.

Perhaps this will give you a fresh perspective on things. Maybe it will help you to consider more age appropriate ways of addressing the inappropriate behavior. If nothing else it’s something to think about.

It’s a good idea to learn your child’s emotional age as it will give you valuable insight into their world. You can gain a better understanding of what makes them tick and also what drives their behavioral decisions. Problem behaviors still need to be addressed and there should be consequences, but you will have a better understanding of why it’s happening, insight into more age appropriate disciplinary actions and even how to avoid some of these behaviors going forward.

Just some food for thought……..  🙂

Rob Gorski

Full time, work from home single Dad to my 3 amazing boys. Oh...and creator fo this blog. :-)
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Our son is 15 chronologically, but age level 5 cognitively as autism has interfered with his cognitive/emotional development. We have seen him as a toddler for many years. Yet, he has many ‘splinter skills’ which have come through and at times he astounds us! When he got IQ tested by our school district, we weren’t sure if he was ok or not cognitively as he can read well aloud, but doesn’t seem to process nor comprehend the info being read. We’ve been told he reads at 5th grade level but comprehends at 2nd grade level. Externals can be very deceiving. Building in good coping skills is not easy, but is our job as parents for and with our special children. We still work on coping skills ourselves about all of it! Helping him find that ‘quiet safe space’ within and repeating our mantra: ‘Calm and Sweet means peace!'(and, of course we make the peace-sign with the 2 fingers.) Say/show it enough, he remembers it, even if he doesn’t ‘get it!’ The point is we hope he’ll reach for the skill when overwhelm comes in. We do our very best, and leave the rest to the Source of all goodness. It’s a scary road as we know the harsh realities of life. He lives in a happy space, but must at times, visit a scary world, as we all do! Thanks for the blog….very insightful, as always. 🙂


I know how you feel in some ways My son is 16 5ft 10 and 180 and while he does not have meltdowns often when he does its usually in public and its mortifying for all who witness it I cant say that Cody is in control of his behavior far from it in fact He hates doing it wishes he could stop it but can not once he gets to meltdown mode he is past the point of return


Yes! This is so true & so difficult to deal with and yet something we face every single day with two of our 4-1/2 year old triplets. Sometimes I feel like we’re in this perpetual toddler world.


A big challenge comes when they become teens or young adults. Society – and the law – hold them accountable based on their chronological age. This can be very hard for them to understand. For example, take the 21 yo who meets a 14 yo in the park. Emotionally, they may be nearly the same age, but the family of the 14 yo immediately thinks, “Predator!” Similarly, someone may call the police if they see a 23 year old male alone in a swing at a children’s playground – yet he just wants to swing; he would never dream of kidnapping a child!
I knew one young man with ASD who loved dogs. He would spend hours at a large pet store…until the pet store called the police and got a restraining order to keep him away. Not sure what they thought he might do…they were just fearful of having an adult (in their eyes) hanging around a pet store. Had an 11 year old hung around watching the puppies, they would have smiled and gone their merry way. Emotionally, he was that 11 year old…but chronologically, he was over 20.


As an Autistic myself with Autistic kids, I need to point out here that there is a difference between meltdowns and tantrums.  Meltdowns are not voluntary, they are generally a reaction to sensory overload of some kind.  Tantrums are purposeful, to get what you want.  Autistics can have both.  3-4 year olds can tantrum.   Tantrums do demand accountability – you do your child no favors if you do not guide him to be able to understand when he is getting overloaded and develop alternatives. .  Notr do you do him any favors to assume incompetence and that he can never control his behavior.  Just a thought here.


@janesprints you are absolutely right.  This is an old post and I realized the difference about a year ago.  I should probably edit this to reflect my current knowledge.  
My son Gavin also has RAD and is quite fond of using the tantrum to attempt to manipulate us.  I was calling them meltdowns for years, not realizing.  
You are correct, meltdowns are involuntary and tantrums are willful, more controlled acts.  
Thanks for pointing that out.  🙂


I have this conversation with the mom of the kiddo I work for often. She also happens to be my best friend. Not only do we have a child on the spectrum our spouses are on the spectrum. It definitely makes for an interesting life. We also get the opportunity to see how children with the condition were parented in a different time. Aspergers was not accepted 20 or 30 yrs ago. These kids were seen as trouble makers, manipulators, or a host of other things. Their poor behavior choices just were not accepted. Because of the way they were parented our husbands have a very difficult time of accepted poor behavior choices and adjusting their disciplinary tactics to fit the age gap. Having 4 children who have quirks (borderline special needs) and being married for 13 years it has been a rough and rocky road. I thank God that he has put people in my life to help me recognize that my husband is not being an ass but that he had no good example of being a father. The other issue with a 12 yr old toddler is the strength. It can be very difficult dealing with their strength and sometimes their length. It is such a hard balance trying to parent a child to be a contributing member of society and helping society to become more aware of and tolerant of others. I tend to want to cater to my childs strengths and hope she finds an accepting community or worry about the community later. My friend helped me to see that this style will set her up for failure. I need to make sure that she understands how other people do things and that I need to teach her how to adjust to society. It can also be frustrating as a parent having a child that reads at an 8th grade level but only comprehends at a 4th grade level at the age of 8. That is a  part of the spectrum, strengths and weaknesses are just magnified and all over the developmental ages. AHH the joy


JenniferWhynott thank you for sharing your personal experience and insights.  Ahh… The Joy is right 🙂


Thank you. I have been having lots of emotional problems with my son lately (he just turned 10). His looks are of a 11 year old, but his emotional development is of a 6-7 or so. He is still very childish comparing to his peers. He loves to cuddle, and he loves his staffed animals. He is very immature in everyday life, and yet sometimes when he say some things and gives his thougts, he is way more mature than most of the adults I came across in my life. Thank you for your article. I need to try to remember that when he has his meltdowns (and laterly it is very often), that he is emotionaly youger. I think looking at it that way, will help me to keep my cool.


@Sandra it’s tough.  🙂


Marianne Sandling you are ever so welcome.  🙂


I have three children ages 9 1/2, almost 8, and 5 1/2 that are all around 2-4yr old emotionally but are 4-6yrold intellectually.  Physically they are also delayed so that does help take a year or two off each of their ages when people are looking at them. It’s tough because the ones that know the ages think they should be doing better where the ones that don’t think oh why would you push that toddler so hard it will just come to them as they get older. As a parent I would like to see somewhere in the middle at least. I get told by the doctors to think of them as the lowest age and treat them as such. It’s hard sometimes as then it’s like having three 2yr olds all the time in my home and most days it looks like I do but then other days we hit the 5yr old range and it’s seems wonderful. It’s a battle everyday for sure that we need to adjust to and work with trying to figure out what to do not based on age but based on the child. 🙂


MissyPlenge I totally understand.  It’s so hard to negotiate the age gap.


This sounds exactly like my 12 year old who I have home schooled

Marianne Sandling

You’re SOOOOO right!!  I’m OFTEN chastised by my mother, who thinks we’re just spoiling him rotten… she does NOT understand his issues at all.  For this reason, she’s NEVER had him alone.  He’s never spent the night, not even “hung” out over there without us.  At 7, that’s highly unusual, but we just can’t take the chance that something will happen to set him off…he’ll REFUSE to go back over there ever again.  (it’s happened before…)
She’s only recently began to understand his issues.. for several years she said ‘nothings wrong with him…it’s all you”
I’m glad to know I’m not the only one, but sorry that you have to deal with it too…Our own little ‘wish others understood club’

Marianne Sandling

I know EXACTLY what you’re saying!!  Our son, L.S. is 7.  He is 9-10 intellectually but emotionally, he’s 3 years behind, so he’s about 4.  It’s VERY hard with a child like this, because they’re smart enough to know about things, but don’t know how to deal with things emotionally.   When we explained it to his teacher at his IEP meeting last year, we finally started seeing some major progress, because they were able to deal with his issues totally different.  They saw him differently.As parents, it’s even much more difficult, because we see their intellegence on a daily basis, and know what they’re capable of… and (I know in our house at least) we have a tendancy to go more on the intellectual side vs emotional side.  We often forget that he’s only 4 emotionally.  He has made GREAT strides in the last year, but it’s still a battle.
Thank you SO much for posting about this.  So many people just don’t get it.


I can totally relate. I have an 11 year old boy whom I love with all that's in me, diagnosed as highly functioning PDD-NOS. It is ver difficult to maintain my expectations aligned with his emotional age. On the other hand, I don't always know when he is or is not in control of his melt downs. To make matters worst, it makes it that much challenging to deal with judgement being passed on my parenting skills by those who just haven't a clue what's like a day in our lives… Most people, including friends and relatives, gravitate towards the idea that he is just not being properly disciplined. What's worst, even though I have a good understanding of his condition, they still manage to plant doubt in me… You asked in other one of your blogs what we wish for the most, that for me is that everyone we come in contact with had at least basic understanding of the spectrum but the reality is that most people haven't even heard of it, yet they are promp to pass judgement all the same 🙁


Yes, it is still the issue for my 10 year old. However, I learned a trick that I can actually bribe her with something she likes. That buys me time and have her go through unpleasant activities that she doesn't want to be a part of (like going to doctor, dentist, etc.). The bribe is very simple – ice cream or chicken nuggets. Sometimes, it is a little toy (Legos and small sized toys are still her favorites since she was a toddler). Positive reinforcement with awards in the end works wonders.  


I'm totally there now. My son is 12 and literally behaves as a 4 year old. All comments are absolutely correct; even though I know the cause, it feels sometimes that I just don't remember. Maybe it's just the part of me (albeit a very small part) that wishes this was all a dream. Thanks for the post..


We struggle with our non-verbal 8 year old and his meltdowns. It is a challenge.

I don't know how you handle having 3 kids on the spectrum.

God bless you.

Moni Fa

My son is now 28 yrs old, looks like a grown up man, yet in some areas he acts and reacts, at about 15yr old level!
And I agree 100% that it is very easy to overlook or forget that fact, when looking at him!
It was easier when he was younger I believe, but now he lives and works in an "adult" world, but is not always prepared or ready!
Thanks 4 sharing your stories with us


I totally understand your post. Unfortunately, my almost 12 year old daughter is not only emotionally delayed but also mentally delayed. It is so hard to find/keep the proper perspective that is age appropriate at the delayed level not chronological age. Thanks for your post.


Totally understand. My 19 year old son is emotionally about 12 to 14, but with the size of a full grown man! He is very very smart and I am still hoping for the day his maturity catches up to his intellect.


I love your post and I know that parents out there who have kids will be able to relate from what you have shared here. Thanks you so much for sharing this to us.
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Excellent post, Rob … I was just having this discussion on FB with a friend who has a child on the spectrum and we were discussing the importance of understanding where your child was at developmentally instead of chronologically. It's something we have to put into perspective often!
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