Part 2: Children with Autism and Obsessionsby Kimberly Kaplan
In my last blog post, I touched on the topic of our obsessions with our autistic children. I believe obsessions are more or less a fact of life for children on the spectrum.
Here's how we handled our child's obsessions:
First, we accepted our child's obsessive tendencies. He has one obsession then he gets onto another obsession. Transformers, drawing pictures of cruise ships (over and over again), looking at the moon through his telescope, and many more.
Honestly, after we got used to them, we would always realize a new obsession had emerged and we'd say (with a smile), "Well, looks like he's into cursive writing now."
What do we do?
We embrace our child's obsessions.
How did we do this?
For example, if he liked fire trucks, we bought him a fire truck book. Or got one from the library. Or let him learn about fire trucks on the Internet.
Look what we'd accomplish by "feeding" his obsessions. Our child learned how to read and he learned how to use a computer. His reading about fire trucks didn't bother us because our child needed to learn how to read anyway. Why not about fire trucks?
What else did we do?
We discussed his obsessions. Like every parent, I want to be able to connect with my child. I want to be able to talk to him. Unfortunately, my child is not always interested in what I'm interested in. So I'd start a discussion about what was interesting to him. One of his obsessions.
I not only have a discussion with my son but I often learn something!
When our child wanted to learn about power poles, for example, he began to learn about electricity. We got a book about electricity and read it together. We learned about electricity together and had something to talk to him about. Why not?
Are obsessions harmful?
We do set limits.
For example, our child is not allowed to ask us the same question over and over again. I'll say to him, "I've already answered your question. How many times do you ask me the same question?"
His response? "One time, Mommy." And then he stops.
I cut him off because we've instituted a rule about asking the same question only one time. When he asks it again, I might answer it a second time but then I usually remind him about the one time only rule.
Over time, he's gotten much better about this. We went through a period when a question would be asked, oh, fifty times a day. Now it's once or twice!
What about other obsessions?
Our child has time limits for his computer time because his computer is his number one obsession. It has been for about two years now.
Computers are a problem with many of our kids. Autistic children love computers because they get to be alone and "connect" with something that feels safe to them. If we'd let our child, he would probably stay on the computer for most of a day.
How do you limit computer time?
A timer works for us. I'll give him 10 minutes of computer time, 20 minutes, or even an hour (usually only on weekends). He puts that exact number on his timer and does a reasonably good job of getting off his computer with the ding of the alarm.
Is our system perfect?
Of course not.
One problem we have has to do with his ability to get off a compute at the sound of the ding. I stated that he's reasonably good at it. He's not perfect, though.
This is a problem sometimes because child with autism have a strong desire to finish what they've started. They do not like to stop in the middle of a TV program or in the middle of a computer game. They get obsessed by stopping "properly." This is yet another version of their ability to obsess on things. Think of it as an obsession on top of an obsession.
What am I getting at?
My child and I have had plenty of arguments about getting off the computer. For the most part, my rule is when his time is up, he needs to get off.
He'll sometimes argue that he's not done yet.
Honestly, if he only has one minute left on a video, I'll usually let him finish. On the flip side, I can usually tell when something isn't going to end soon. So I have to tell him that his time is up and he has to get off. It's usually bedtime or time to go to school when this happens. But I remind him of the rules.
My child has protested, many times. We try very hard not to bend this rule too much. We do not put more time on the timer or walk away giving our child what he wants. We have set our own limits and we do a reasonably good job of keeping to our limits.
How else can you help your child transition out of an obsession?
If you're going to use a timer, remember this little trick...give countdown warnings. Our child likes it better when he knows that he only have 5 of his allotted 20 minutes left. We have found that it's easier to get him to transition if he's less surprised that his time is over.
What else about obsessions?
My final thoughts are simple. Try to embrace who your child is. If they are obsessive, that's who they are. It's still your child. And you may not be able to do anything about those obsessions.
Having a child with obsessive behavior makes our job that much harder. But, really, isn't it a job that's worth it? I have learned so much because my child has had an interest in maps, astronomy, and electricity. My personal knowledge has increased.
I wouldn't trade that knowledge for anything nor would I stop my child from having healthy interests. His smile when he talks about the cursive letter "G" or his Super Mario Brothers game or his Wii golf score makes me melt. And, hopefully, your child's obsession makes you melt, too.