Should children with autism be encouraged in their obsessive behaviors?
Many children with autism have an obsession with numbers. Our child is no exception. We began to notice this particular trait several years ago. When he was very young, our son learned how to count. He learned very quickly. Since our child likes things to be big, he simply kept on counting! There was even a time when he Googled all the “milestone” numbers that come after, say, one trillion. He knew them all.
Our child often tells us about numbers he observes. He loves to tell us about freeway numbers, for example. To him, we aren’t traveling on roads, we’re traveling from one freeway number to the next. He also likes to number our “favorites.” “What is your first favorite movie, Mommy? What is your second favorite movie, Mommy?” Etc.
He also is attracted to money. Recently, he decided that I wanted $60 cash back from the grocery store self-checkout. He simply pushed the “60” because he saw the number. I was not pleased! He also likes to play games involving numbers, like Uno and Monopoly.
Why do we encourage this numbers obsession? Well, one reason is that he takes so much pride in his ability to provide accurate numbers in almost any situation. He enjoys it. And it’s not like we haven’t encouraged and/or supported his obsessions in the past. He has been obsessed with fire trucks and airplanes and power poles and electricity. We did not steer him away from these things. We let him talk about them and even bought books and toys.
His numbers obsession has lasted the longest, but at least we see a ray of hope in this one.
You may be wondering what I mean. How could we possibly encourage any fixation in a child with autism (where it seems like everything and anything could end up an obsession)?
Well, this is a NUMBERS obsession. We feel that as long as he understands what he’s talking about, and doesn’t go on and on for hours at a time, then it can easily be a reasonable part of his daily life. We figure letting him be the banker in Monopoly is a good thing. He’s learning about the distribution of money, isn’t he?
During a speech at an autism conference, Temple Grandin suggested that these types of obsessions are not only acceptable but should be encouraged. Like us, she also saw no harm in this type of behavior. Additionally, she even implied that what your child obsesses
about now may even end up being what your child does for his/her entire life! It may become their niche. Did someone ever suggest that Bill Gates was obsessed with computers?
What do I suggest about your child’s tendency to become obsessed with numbers? For the most part, let it go, especially if the fixation seems rather innocuous. And, remember, you must have the ability to cut him/her off after a certain point. Warn your child, “Okay, you’ve talked about number now for a while. It’s break time. Let’s talk about something else.”
Obsessions are fascinations. They can steered toward the positive. And, you never know where that obsession may lead someday.