Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often use fixation and obsession as a method to cope with anxiety and restless thoughts. This momentary one-track mindedness serves as a relief from thoughts “buzzing” around.
While an effective coping skill for its purpose, it can become detrimental if it prevents the child from expanding their skills and learning new ideas. In some cases this can manifest itself in the form of undesirable or perhaps even self-destructive behaviors.
It’s important to remember that children with ASD often find reality and social interaction to be overwhelming. When they are in a moment of fixation, it is so in that moment, that they don’t have to deal with the rest of their world. There is comfort in the predictability of these fixations, and the idea of losing these ideas, objects, or behaviors that bring this comfort can be a cause for more anxiety.
The key is to make a distinction between an unhealthy obsession and a hobby. Fixations which come in the form of productive skills, such as art, craftsmanship, or music, are beneficial in the long run. Other fixations, such as an obsession with one particular subject, time-consuming rituals, forms of isolation, or even some self-harming behaviors, are distractions that prevent a child with ASD from being fully present in reality.
One way of intervening with detrimental fixations is by finding ways to create a healthy structure for the day. This can look like creating a physical schedule for the day, making notes on the calendar, and having routine activities to look forward to. This helps to reduce overall anxiety by creating predictability for your child.
It is also important to catch negative repetitive behaviors early on. These sorts of actions become much more difficult to change if they are allowed to continue. One way of changing negative fixation is by finding an alternative that provides the same sort of sensory relief. For instance, if your child becomes obsessed with squeezing out toothpaste and makes a huge mess, try providing them with play-dough that they can squeeze in the same way and not make a mess.
Make use of setting limits to create a healthy balance with an obsession is also a useful tool. For instance, if your child becomes obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and begins to only talk about this, try reducing the amount of time that he or she is allowed to talk about this subject gradually each day. Using a timer or a visual aid can be helpful in this case since children with ASD often struggle with accurately measuring the passage of time.
Helping your child manage their interests while preventing unhealthy obsessions will be one crucial step in allowing them to live and succeed in the world around them. By providing structure, redirecting poor habits, and setting limits, you can empower your child to step further into reality and further into their potential.