I am an autism parent. One of the things I have to cope with daily is my children’s obsessions. It sort of comes with the territory. There are times I could scream at the thought of watching another ten seconds of the same piece of video, or hearing the same script over and over again. Many times I would just love to pick up the endless rows of lined up toys to be able to just walk across my living room floor or have a meal without lines and lines of toys overtaking the dining room table. The compelling nature of my children’s obsessions has at times made me feel they hold Thomas tank Engine, lift doors or numbers in far higher regard than anything else in life, even me!
Their obsessions can have negative effects on them and others making them more socially excluded than they already are, or even making them the target of bullies. When they eat, sleep and breathe just one main thing it can be hard to live with and very exhausting. But when I look at these positives I have to admit, I really do love my children’s obsessions. Here is why:
1. It help them learn.
So many children with autism have learnt colours and numbers and words just by being obsessed with Thomas Tank Engine. Through my daughter’s previous obsession with Chuggington (trains are a definite theme here!) she learnt about turn taking (trains crash if on the same line at the same time), following instructions, helping others and working together; all concepts children with autism often really struggle with. Without her obsession such everyday basics would have been much more difficult to teach her as her brain was far more receptive while focussed on her current addiction.
2. It make them less anxious.
Like so many children with autism my daughter really struggles with anxiety. But while engrossed in her obsession or current trend she will happily escape into her own world giving her mind a chance to relax and settle from all the anxieties she carries around with her daily. It is often during play with her favourite toys that she will finally open up about something that has been troubling her. Everyone’s mind needs a rest once in a while and if escaping into her preoccupation helps her to ‘switch off’ then I love that she has that way of coping.
3. It helps them communicate.
Naomi talks when she is relaxed. And she is most relaxed in her comfort zone of her current obsession, whatever that may be. We may only get scripted vocabulary at times but often this can be used to match feelings, fears or communicating a need. By tuning into her obsession and loving it with her I can interpret those means of communicating and help others to understand her too.
4. It allow others the honour of entering their world.
Naomi, like so many children on the spectrum, is happy to stay in her own little bubble. Social skills are not her strong point and she mostly relies on others to initiate interaction. So by having an obsession others have a way into this bubble that can help them reach her and help Naomi stretch her own world to include others. Sometimes she won’t allow this but without the obsession there is no key into her world at all.
5. It helps them socially.
Small talk is not her ‘thing’. But allow my daughter time to discuss her current interest and the start of a social interaction could begin. Even without knowledge of her specialist subject it is still possible to begin interaction with open questions about what she is holding, or lining up, or staring at endlessly from every angle.
6. It gives them control.
When she has had the demand of school to face all day and all the anxiety and stress this brings it is reassuring for her to come home to the security of her current fascination knowing she is in control of what will happen in her play. In an unpredictable and ever changing world this control helps her feel grounded and at peace. New toys do things she may not understand but when you know all there is to know about something and you are familiar with all the pieces and names you feel much more in control and happy. Where else could she get this control from?
7. It helps me to buy for them.
I hear so often around Christmas and birthday’s with families of special needs children that they have no idea what to buy for their children. Some children just don’t play with conventional toys (like Naomi’s twin brother who prefers watching lifts!) so the Argos catalogue and the Internet don’t help. When your child has a current obsession even if they have everything you can think of they will probably soon tell you of that missing train, or character, or whatever, that they need. And you can always have fun together making things related to the theme too. Every Christmas I am so thankful my children have some sort of obsession, even if it is only the number 2!
8. It motivates them.
Recently Naomi was very ill with pneumonia and I struggled to give her a reason to get well. She had no obsession at the time so nothing motivated her to want to get off the couch and play or even eat. It is amazing how character spaghetti comes into its own when suddenly they want to eat just because it is Peppa Pig shaped! Use their interests to help get them to do things like get dressed, have a bath, and even walk to school. You will hear me say often ‘first teeth brush, then play with….’ Because it works!
9. It helps them transition from one thing to another.
Both my children struggle with moving from one thing or place to another. But using their current interest helps. We have had dinner with a line of Thomas tanks engines by her plate many times, and toy plastic food is a regular bath toy for my non verbal son. If it can go with them in a pocket…then it comes along with us. My daughter still takes a comfort toy to school in her pocket and it will always be related to her current obsession. It makes it easier for her to get from home to school and vice versa.
10. It makes them the interesting, unique, wonderful person people they are.
Some obsessions have lasted years, others a few weeks or months. But each one get embraced as we go along on the ride with my children. Their interests are part of them.The same way everyone in life has a passion, a reason to get up in the morning, and something that gives them a ‘buzz’. It’s about accepting my children, using their loves in the best way I can and loving what they love…just because I respect them, accept them and embrace them for the wonderful unique individuals they are.
Am I Thomas Tank Engines biggest fan? Not really. Am I delighted to watch the same clip of lift doors opening and closing for hours on end? Not exactly. But these things interest my children so they interest me too. If I love them..then I love all that comes with them too.
Now I had better go. Apparently my son has found a different ten seconds of Peppa pig in Spanish he likes and he thinks I want to share that with him. I will love it of course…