My Toddler Keeps Putting Their Hands On Ears – Is This Autism?

At first, you might have found it cute and endearing to see your child cover their ears, but seeing it happen all the time now has made you feel worried and anxious.

What makes it worse is that they can’t tell you what’s wrong.

Is it normal for babies to cover their ears, or is it a sign of something more serious?

It could be ear pain

Unlike older children or adults, babies and toddlers aren’t able to voice out what they feel.

So if they feel any ear pain, they might try to communicate it by covering or tugging at their ears instead.

Some parents notice that their babies pull at their ears when they’re teething, although there hasn’t been a clear connection between these two.

What would cause ear pain in infants and toddlers?

Ear infections

Children are also prone to develop ear infections as adults do.

A toddler boy is sitting up and crying while touching his ear, because he might have an ear infection.

There are two main types of infections:

  1. External ear infections
  2. Middle ear infections

External ear infections, also known as otitis externa or swimmer’s ear, are common in kids.

The thin skin lining the ear canal develops small abrasions or fissures, usually from activities such as swimming or when kids place objects or their fingers inside their ears.

This makes it much easier for infection to settle in and cause inflammation. Some symptoms of swimmer’s ear are ear pain, itchiness, and ear discharge.

Middle ear infections, also called otitis media, happen when the Eustachian tube is unable to drain fluid properly. This tube is a small canal connecting the ear to the throat.

When the fluid remains stagnant – which usually happens during an allergy or upper respiratory tract infection – bacteria can grow and infect the middle ear.

Symptoms that point to otitis media are fever, ear discharge, ear pain, irritability, and difficulty sleeping.

Earwax

Earwax (also known as cerumen) is a substance produced in the ears to help protect the lining of the ear canal from dust, bacteria, and other foreign objects.

While most people have just the right amount of earwax, sometimes earwax doesn’t get cleared up properly and instead builds up along the ear canal.

A pediatrician is checking a toddler girls ear for possible ear infection or earwax buildup

This build-up can harden and lead to impacted cerumen. Some symptoms include ear pain, ringing in the ears, fullness, and decreased hearing (because of the blockage).

For these three conditions, it’s best to have your child checked by a doctor. Treating these conditions is best managed by a doctor.

Your baby might just be tired

If your toddler has been playing the whole day or has been excited because of a new toy or playmate, then suddenly covers their ears, they could simply be tired from all of the day’s activities.

They may be covering their ears to feel safe as a form of self-comfort.

Make sure you give your child some quiet time after an exciting day — after all, kids also need rest and downtime.

Maybe they’re extra sensitive to sound

Do you notice your baby covering their ears whenever there are loud sounds or when they are in a noisy environment?

Double-check your surroundings, and maybe try to bring your child to a quiet place first. Observe if they still cover their ears after staying in a calm environment for a few days.

How do I differentiate this from autism?

Covering one’s ears is not an absolute sign of autism. Some kids just do it because of the discomfort.

On the other hand, people with autism spectrum disorder are either barely or extra sensitive with sensory stimuli, such as lights, sounds, and temperature.

If your child has some form of autism, they will show other symptoms. They may try to avoid interacting with other kids, refuse to maintain eye contact with people, or decide to eat only certain textures of food.

It could be a sensory processing disorder

In children with sensory processing disorder (SPD), sensory stimuli (vision, hearing, touch) are processed differently by the nervous system, causing the body to react differently to these stimuli than they normally would.

This could mean under- or oversensitivity to these stimuli, which can also make them feel pain or anxiety.

They cope by trying to self-soothe, and covering their ears may be one way they do this. SPD involves either one sense or all senses.

Autism and SPD are developmental or behavioral conditions that should be evaluated and diagnosed by a healthcare professional.

It can be just normal behavior

A toddler girl is covering her ears and not looking happy

Children from 4-12 months old are at their period of discovery – both in their surroundings and with themselves.

Covering, touching, or pulling their ears may be part of how they learn more about how their bodies work.

If your doctor rules out the other reasons mentioned above, then it’s best to just observe for now.

FAQs

My baby might have impacted cerumen. How do I clean my child’s ears at home?

If the earwax is really impacted (hardened), it might not be safe to remove it at home.

Using a cotton swab or ear candling might make it worse, or push the earwax deeper into the ear canal. Have your child’s ears checked by a doctor, to be safe.

What are other signs of autism in toddlers?

Autism has a wide range of signs.

Toddlers with ASD will not turn their head when called, barely talk (or only repeat words they always hear), avoid eye contact, lack facial expressions or emotional displays of affection.

Takeaway

If your child is constantly covering their ears, there are different possible explanations for this.

The most common is ear pain, which can be due to ear infections or a buildup of earwax. Other reasons are related to sensitivity to sound and other stimuli and feeling tired from too much activity.

Sometimes, this behavior is normal and should just be monitored closely. However, if you are unsure, it’s best to have your child seen by your friendly pediatrician.

Sarah is a healthcare writer, motivated by her love of reading books while growing up. She took up human biology and further studies in medicine, in order to fulfill her passion for helping kids. While she isn't a biological mother yet, she has taken two young dogs, named Indy and Obi-Wan, under her wing. She would love to someday travel the world and meet kids from different cultural backgrounds.

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