DEALING WITH PREOCCUPATIONS
by Barry K. Morris B.ScWk
Children with Autism
Spectrum Disorders often develop intense, very narrow fields
of interest, such as learning obsessively about computers, TV programs,
movie schedules, lining objects in straight rows, lighthouses or
collecting sticks. Preoccupations can also be sensory in nature,
such as the feel of water or a certain fabric.
The child may gather information and talk non-stop
to others about this interest or may repeatedly ask questions about
it. This can be very tiring and frustrating for parents and teachers. On the other hand, these preoccupations can often be shaped into very positive experiences for children. For example, parents may help their child broaden their interests so that this passion for knowledge develops a child's learning and research skills.
Does the preoccupation need to be dealt with?
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders usually
dislike changes to their routines, so if parents want to deal with
their child's preoccupation, they'll need to carefully weigh up
how much the preoccupation is affecting the family, how much energy
they have, and how strongly their child will resist change.
"John's preoccupations have varied over the
past five years, from spiders, house keys and running water to rubbing
the hair on daddy's arm. Trying to change any of these involved
so much struggle that we just looked for ways to minimize any danger
or inconvenience... he was never allowed to touch spiders of course,
and we gave him his own keys to play with". - JKB
underlying issues of the preoccupation
It helps to understand the underlying reasons
before attempting to change any behavior. There may be a sensory
issue involved, whether it is the sight, sound, smell or feel
of an object or activity. Where the preoccupation is potentially
dangerous or inappropriate, understanding the sensory issue may
make it easier to substitute a better activity or object in place.
Children with autism will often not realise that
other people don't share their intense interest due to mind-blindness,
an inability to know how other people think differently. The child
may simply not realise that most people have no interest in hair
clips or collecting dead leaves. A practical strategy here is to
set clear rules and limits on the preoccupation. For example, a
child may be limited to five minutes of talking about their interest
at a time. There can be a rule that when meeting someone, they must
first say hello and ask three general questions before telling a
visitor about their interest.
Children on the autism spectrum often experience
a lot of anxiety,
and a preoccupation can be very calming due to its familiarity and
sense of routine. This is why preoccupations can be extremely intense
when the child is anxious. Instead of tackling the preoccupation
head on, parents may find it much more useful to deal with the cause
of the anxiety in each case.
tips for parents
Decide if the preoccupation needs attention, or
can be tolerated. Usually change is only needed if it could affect
the child's development negatively, the preoccupation is socially
offensive or inappropriate, or it is causing the family too much
Look for ways to 'shape' the preoccupation into
something constructive i.e. a fascination with butterflies can lead
to discussions about biology and other insects. Children with autism
often don't see the 'big picture', so it always helps to try to
broaden the narrow interest into a wider one! Many adults on the autism spectrum wind up working in an area that was influenced by their childhood preoccupations.
Set plenty of rules, children on the autism spectrum
tend to love clear logical rules. These rules can be who the child
can talk with about their interest and for how long, and how much
of the day can be spent on the preoccupation. It can help to even
write these down in a contract.
Above all, it's worth remembering that both children and adults on the autism spectrum are individuals, and not all will exhibit the same behaviours or will respond the same way to these techniques, and making a genuine attempt to understand the autistic child as a person is more helpful than responding to a set of symptoms.
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