Why does my kid cry when we try to play with her?

My kid is 2-years-old and when you go to play with her like you would another child she screams and gets upset most of the time. You can’t tickle her, or hold her upside down to make her laugh, and it’s not normal. She doesn’t have any signs of autism and is keeping up according to the assessments at the doctor but the behavior is concerning. Should I have her tested? Is this normal?

Your child may have some sensitivities to, or at least a clear preference against, physical/highly stimulating and tactile play, and there’s nothing “not normal” about that. One of the most important things is to respect that about her and not try to force physical interaction in that way. I would wonder about her willingness to engage in other types of play. Watch her, focus on the play that she is naturally drawn to, and engage her with those preferred activities. Is she receptive to playing kitchen play with you? Caretaking activities with a doll or stuffed animal? Vehicles and figurines? Looking at books together? Assuming she allows you to play with her in that way, she sounds like a typical child who just does not enjoy the very specific physical play you describe.

In terms of having her tested, it is a good sign that she is keeping up with all milestones during her well child visits. She, and all children this age, should continue to be routinely monitored by a pediatrician during this critical developmental period. Should there be other sensory concerns not mentioned, or should further concerns arise about her being sensory averse to variety of things — vestibular experiences, tactile, olfactory or auditory stimuli, for example — and it is impacting her daily living, or is distressing for the family unit, then it is worth speaking with the pediatrician about further testing. Generally, I would say that a child can have sensory issues without having autism spectrum disorder, and they can also have play preferences without have “sensory issues.”

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Tara Brennan Tara Brennan, PsyD, is the Director of the Child Development Program at Children's National Hospital. She is a clinical psychologist licensed in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and specializes in assessment of children with acute and chronic medical conditions, and neurodevelopmental delays and disabilities.

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