Children with Autism: Obsessions & Idioms


Every once in a while I like to revisit some classic autism-related characteristics. This time I’m going to revisit obsessions.

Recently, I was reminded that my son always seems to have one or two obsessions. One of the latest ones I find very interesting and it makes me love him even more while also reminding me of one of the hallmarks of his diagnosis… autism.

What is his latest obsession?

In previous blogs, I had mentioned that our child was struggling with idioms. I would ponder the question, “How are we ever going to get our son to understand idioms?”

What are idioms?

Idioms are phrases that say one thing but mean something else.

Children with autism have a tendency to say things and listen to what you tell them in a very literal way. If a child with autism has trouble waiting and you say, “Hold your horses,” typically that child will look around for the horse you are referring to.

So, I’d ponder the question, “How can literal thinkers learn idioms?”

What do idioms have to do with obsessions?

Our son has recently taught us one way that he can learn idioms – via obsession. This more recent revelation makes me smile often at my child while also continuing to study the complicated world of autism.

What’s with this combination of obsession and idioms?

Here is what happening: Our son’s desire to learn idioms has become an obsession. He constantly asks us to tell him an idiom (or two or three or four… you get my point).

After we come up with an idiom, he wants it explained… and loves the explanation. He gets so happy and excited and gives us his big smile.

Then, he wants more.

This happens more often at night. This “tell me another idiom, Mommy” has become a nightly routine. So much so that if we refuse to come up with yet another nightly idiom (because you need to go to sleep!), he gets upset.

Additionally, since our kid is no dummy, if we dare to “restate” a previously stated idiom, he catches us. “You’ve already told me that one.”

Finally, when he’s really hard up, he makes up his own idioms!

Do obsessions remain inside the home?


We recently had our child’s IEP and during the meeting, the IEP team agreed on many things and one of them was that our son was obsessed with idioms. He had taken his obsession to school with him and every member of the IEP team had had experience with our son and his idiom obsession.

What happens with obsessions?

This is my opinion, but I believe my child’s mind gets locked onto something and that an obsession is more or less always on his mind. It’s either on the surface ready to come out at any moment or it’s “lingering” in the shadows of his thoughts.

For example, we can be studying for a science test when he suddenly breaks out an idiom.

What are other ways idioms come up?

Reading fiction is a challenge for our child. He gets bored with fiction because he struggles to understand such nuances as character’s motivations and emotions. His mind wanders.

The other day I was reading aloud to him and, in the novel, was an idiom. That got my child’s attention! He stopped my reading to ask me about the idiom!

Of course, I hadn’t noticed I had read an idiom, but he did! It’s an obsession with him and he not has to ability to pick them out.

So, obsessions are okay?

This one is, and so are others, in my opinion. I believe many are harmless, especially if you recognize them and maintain them in a reasonable manner. And, yes, be aware of the ones where a child is obsessed with darting into a street. That one needs a different level of attention.

I adore this one with idioms because I had long struggled with the question, “How will this literal thinker ever learn idioms?”

The next thing I knew our son had fallen in love with them and I think it’s awesome.

Does it get to be too much?

Of course it does and we tell him, “Buddy, three idioms is enough. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear more.” I simply see this idiom obsession as something positive.


Because idioms are a play on words and our kids often miss the multiple meanings of words.

What a great thing that our child wants to learn more about how our English language works. English is a tricky language, and not knowing anything at all about idioms can make it even harder for our kids to get along in this world.

Alas, our child is finally learning idioms!


To Find Kimberly Kaplan: or Amazon Kindle ebook “A Parents’ Guide to Early Autism Intervention”
Twitter: @tipsautismmom



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