Toughened toddlers seek rewards & Toddlers’ temperament is autism early indicator

Last updated 15 December 2023

Toughened toddlers seek rewards

Children who grow up in a harsh environment and act assertively at aged two tend to do better than average when solving reward-based problems, but do worse on abstract ones.

Stressful childhood environments are known to alter children’s cognitive development. Jennifer Suor and colleagues at the University of Rochester, New York looked at 201 mother-child pairs to better understand how a child’s problem-solving style is linked to their life history.

Household income and the mother’s interest and engagement with their child were measured at 2 years old, along with the child’s assertive or ‘hawk’ traits. These traits include heightened levels of aggressiveness, boldness, activity and approach.

The children’s abstract and reward-based problem solving were then tested at 4 years old. Only the children from difficult early environments, who also had hawk traits, showed reduced abstract and improved reward-based problem solving.

The authors suggest stressed children should be viewed as being more reward-orientated, instead of just cognitively impaired, and that assessments and interventions could be modified to reflect this.

Suor, J. H., Sturge-Apple, M. L., Davies, P. T. and Cicchetti, D. (2017), A life history approach to delineating how harsh environments and hawk temperament traits differentially shape children’s problem-solving skills. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 58: 902–909. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12718

Toddlers’ temperament is autism early indicator

The ability of two-year-olds with autism to control their actions could be used to predict social skills and autism severity in children diagnosed at preschool age – suggesting a new avenue for exploring early diagnosis.

Toddlers can be erratic in their development – behaviours that appear in the first years of life can vanish again just as quickly. But early traits can also stabilise and form the bedrock of personality or atypical development.

Suzanne Macari of Yale University and colleagues used a questionnaire to compare the temperamental traits of 2-year-olds with either delayed or typical development. At three and half the toddlers were tested again and also screened for autism.

“Effortful control” – a form of self-control measured by the questionnaire – did not improve in toddlers who went on to develop autism. This supports earlier findings , that traits linked to autism can appear early, suggesting these could underlie subsequent social difficulties. The authors propose that this finding could be used to predict the severity of future social communication difficulties and to personalise interventions.

Macari, S. L., Koller, J., Campbell, D. J. and Chawarska, K. (2017), Temperamental markers in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 58: 819–828. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12710