Flapping arms – head lag – no eye contact. Is it autism or developmental delay?

Understanding infant development to rule out either

You went to visit your friends, and your baby was acting in a way that you have never seen her before.

Now you are worried.

Your 7-month-old baby got excited and started jumping in your arms. Then she suddenly started flapping her little arms. It lasted nearly a minute, but it felt like an eternity for you.

What if your baby is autistic or has developmental delays?

Like most mothers do, you most likely have heard and read about autism.

There is even a chance that you know someone who has a child with autism.

So you kind-of-know what to look for.
But you are not certain.

Naturally, you worry.
Worry that any behavior, movement or lack of it can be a sign of autism or developmental delay.


Autism is a spectrum disorder.

On one end of the spectrum, there are children who behave almost like non-autistic children.

On the other end of the spectrum, some children are not able to learn even basic life skills.
And some can not control their behavior at all.

“Spectrum disorder” also means that not every child has the same symptoms/ signs/ delays/ challenges. Thus the diagnosis is given only to children who present with more than 1-2 signs.

So if your child is flapping their arms but has no other signs, he is most likely not autistic. 

Of course, there is a chance that you are not able to identify the other signs. That is why to be certain educate yourself as much as possible and seek professional help.

Knowing and understanding what the signs of autism and developmental delay is crucial for every mom.


This knowledge will empower you to assess and teach your baby.

It will also assist you to seek medical intervention when necessary and help your baby as soon as possible.

It will help you clarify that not all “weird” movements your baby does are a sign of autism. Some are naturally occurring milestone. And some are signs of developmental delay.

It will guide you to understand the naturally occurring infant movements, behaviors, milestones.

As a guide let’s use the signs and delays of autism.

The most common signs of Autism are:

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a random shape built with HexActly

The first idea that comes to most parents mind when they see these hexagon building blocks is to build with it existing and imaginary structures. 

However, using this toy you can teach your toddler a variety of life skills even though it is recommended for preschoolers and up.

I introduce toys to children as soon as the child can play with them safely with my supervision.

At 12-14-months of age the child is ready to learn from this toy. Younger children put everything in their mouth and the single hexagon is too small to hand it to them.

A 12-month-old might still be mouthing so in that case do not hand them the single hexagon yet. However, you can play with the other, larger pieces.

Use this toy to teach them that they cannot mouth everything.

HexActly in box

If you want to hand the toy to the child to play independently with, than this toy should be given to children 3+. Just like the package says.

Probably even better to give it to a 4-5-year-old. The 5-year-old will have the interest, the understanding, the patience and the cognitive/motor capacity to disciple what this toy can offer.

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Puzzles are versatile toys and educational tools. “They are fun for all ages.”

The beginner puzzles are peg puzzles. The large knob puzzles are a good toy from age 6-7 months. The small peg puzzles can be introduced at 10-11 months of age.

I prefer the small knob puzzles. The large knob is good for someone with weak hands and severe muscular challenges. Babies with no challenges usually graduate to the small peg puzzles in 2-3 months.

What do I do with peg puzzles?

First of all, I consider them tools, not toys.

  • Teach imitation
  • Teach matching
  • Teach vocabulary
  • Teach sounds and words
  • Teach concepts i.e.: colors, counting
  • Teach bending the knees and other motor skills
  • Teach following directions

Definition of tools and toys

The best tools to teach a baby are my toys. I looooove toys! And I love to play and teach with them.

I consider toys to be a parents tool until the child can be taught with that toy. When I child can play with the toy all the “games” the parent taught her the toy stops being a tool.

large knob puzzle

My toys are my tools

As a Physical Therapist, I use toys to distract and entertain from the difficulties of the exercise I am teaching a child to do.

Even though my profession is about the motor components of child development I make sure to teach the child all skills I know. For example, I address finger movements, arm strength, self-feeding, vocabulary, cognitive thinking, speech ext.

Teaching imitation

One of the baby’s cognitive corner skills is imitating. With peg puzzles a baby imitates mom:

  • Taking out the puzzle pieces
  • Putting in the puzzle pieces
  • Matching the puzzle piece image to the same image on the board
  • Holding the puzzle pieces with the pincher grasp
  • Turning the pieces to fit into cut out shape
  • Naming the puzzle piece
  • Focusing to complete the task at hand ext

When I work on imitation I like to sit the baby in the high chair to avoid distraction and keep the baby from crawling away. I place the puzzle board with the pieces in them in front of the baby.

Then I take the pieces out one by one and place them on my table watching the whole time what is the baby doing. I work in silence because I want the baby to focus on my movements only.

I am looking at facial expressions, tracking of her eyes, reaching to touch puzzle, eventually imitating the whole sequence I presented.

Teaching matching

When I established that the baby is imitating I play different games with the puzzle. When I work on matching I name the puzzle piece and move it to the matching spot on the board and either say “match” or repeat the name of the puzzle piece.

beginners vocabulary puzzle

Teaching vocabulary

When I focus on vocabulary the completion of the puzzle is not the goal. I pick up puzzle pieces name them or say any word or sound I can teach with it and give it to the child. He is free to do anything with it. I keep giving him pieces and putting them in and out of board until the child is engaged in this game.

Teaching sounds and words

When the child knows some of the words I start working on speech. During the game style described above, I won't give them a piece until the child stays silent or looks at me/my mouth or repeats a sound /syllable /the word he hears.

Teaching concepts i.e.: colors, counting

colored tomatoes

Concepts are hard to teach to a baby. Green-Red-Blue are words but they are also a concept, not a thing. Concepts can be easiest taught when we describe the concept of a thing the baby already knows.

I introduce concept playing with the puzzle when the baby clearly knows the word of the puzzle piece. Shape puzzle is a good tool to teach color with.

When I introduce colors I hold to 2 shapes at the same time. I say the color and shape names and wait for the child to reach out to get one of the shapes.

I motion the chosen piece toward the little hand and hold it firmly for while the baby pulls on it and repeat the color and shape name. This tug-a-war creates a repeated notice of my spoken words in the baby.

Teaching bending the knees and other motor skills

Bending down from standing is a big milestone. To help baby safely and without any compensations, I place the empty puzzle board onto the couch.

I stand the baby facing the board and sit next to her dominant side. I hold each puzzle piece one by one around knee level facilitating the baby to reach down to get the piece.

To get baby’s attention and to direct the mind downwards I repeatedly and gently tap the baby’s leg with the puzzle. As the baby progresses I hold the puzzle lower and lower until I reach the floor level.

Teaching following directions

3D men with puzzle block

With a walking child, I will spread the puzzle pieces facing up on the floor 2-3 feet away from a child table. I will put the board on the table and ask the child to bring me a particular puzzle piece.

 If the child brings the wrong puzzle piece I will send it back and continue asking for the piece I “wanted” originally. I will stay at the table until I see the baby needs help looking, locating the asked piece.

I also teach following directions with the peg puzzles with one picture cut into pieces.

These are a few thing I work on using puzzles. I have around 30 peg board puzzles, antique and new. I collect them according their teaching “powers”.

All my puzzles are in zip-lock bags. I clean up one toy counting all pieces before I start playing with a new one. Using this method I managed to keep all the pieces to my puzzles.

shapes house puzzle


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