Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. For many younger children it’s Thomas the Tank Engine, dinosaurs or cartoon characters. Monty loves to collect the engines, look at them and put them in a line. He has so many of the blooming things that when he lines them up, they can stretch from one end of the house to the other!
It can be very frustrating for parents to witness these behaviors and obsessive traits. I for one was hoping this ‘Thomas’ fixation would have passed by the time he was 6 but no, he has added many to his Xmas list. Autistic children often chat incessantly about their interests to others (perhaps the only time they will chat freely to anyone that will listen) without pausing for breath or a conversational interlude from the recipient. They are often unaware that the other person may not equal fascination in their talking point, but carrying on chatting regardless.
Why So Obsessive??
So why do autistic children have these obsessive and highly consuming interests? Well, there are many reasons, here are a few to consider:
- This all-encompassing interest serves as a focus for them, a channel which to block out any anxieties or thoughts they have struggled with during the day. When Monty comes home from school, the first thing he does is ensure all his trains are where he left them, adjusting the line accordingly.
- It provides a structure and order that some autistic children obviously crave. Nursery or school can be chaotic and hard for children on the spectrum – these obsessions provide a way to cope with the uncertainties of the day.
- Chatting about their hobbies makes an autistic child feel more reassured in Social situations – I know Monty often struggles with ‘social norms’ and talking about his chosen subject often makes him feel more at ease.
- Finally, it makes them happy!
If you watched the Chris Packham documentary on BBC2 you will see that he was obsessed with nature from a very early age. However, this was a great programme in highlighting that these obsessions can in fact, turn out to be positive – for Chris, he made a career out of his love of nature! So, this led me to try and write about how we use these obsessions to help the child learn and communicate. If you missed it, please find the link here -its a great watch:
Creating Learning Opportunities
Over the years, instead of trying to steer Monty away from Thomas, I’ve learnt to use it positively. Of course, there are times where I must set boundaries if his obsession is impacting on other areas of his life – for example homework. But turning what I thought was a pain in the rear end to something that can be used to engage Monty has been beneficial:
- Whilst lining his trains up, I’ve asked him to tell me about them. What they look like, who their friends are and what job they do. This helps to encourage his descriptive language, whilst engaging in a two-way conversation.
- Buying Thomas related games and toys – I found a Thomas Snakes and Ladders Game which he loved. It encouraged him to turn take, enjoy a shared activity and improved his counting.
- Create simple imaginary play through his love of Thomas – I often recreated some scenes from the programme with his trains.
- My youngest Theo loves watching the motorized trains going around the track. So, I have created an activity whereby I say, ‘Ready Steady………Go’…….and start the train. However, I only start the train if Theo looks at me, or makes a gesture or sound. This encourages non-verbal and verbal communication and interaction with the other person.
- Monty loves Minecraft, and so does one of his friends. I have often invited the friend over to play it. Monty is comfortable chatting away to his friend about it and obviously this is encouraging and nurturing his friendships.
This is an approach that teaches Autistic children the fundamentals necessary for communication. It is based on how adults interact with babies during their first year. Essentially, it is copying the child’s actions or sounds – for example, when a baby babbles, you babble back – this encourages the child to communicate via eye contact.
So, for an autistic child, the adult enters their world and whatever activity they are doing. The child leads the activity, and the adult copies whatever the child does. For example, Theo loves scribbling on paper – Intensive Interaction would involve copying his movements with the pen after he has finished scribbling. If he babbles a word, I babble it back to him. It encourages the child to interact with others in a non-pressurized way as you are sharing in their activity or movement. Theos eye contact has improved leaps and bounds since I started this. This video below goes into more detail about this and show Intensive Interaction in action:
This is no means an exhaustive list, but just a few ideas of how you can use these interests to expand on their learning and communication. Obviously, I can’t do it all day every day, it’s just not possible but ten minutes here and there would be just fine.
However, for me, it was still important to expose Monty to other things he may find exciting. Trying things out such as tennis, music and seeing whether he liked them. Last year I took him to a football club to see if he enjoyed it. I wasn’t overly positive about him wanting to go back, but it turns out he loved it. This started a huge love affair with football that I never imagined. He plays every chance he can get as well as watching in on the TV. He plays with a team on a Friday night and it’s the highlight of his week.
He takes his football to school and plays at lunchtime. It has created the opportunity for him to socialise without having the pressure sit and chat, he is ‘part’ of something – his team and not only that, he gets to run around a lot with helps with his sleep, not to mention is anxieties.
In fact, he is becoming rather good at it! That’s the great thing about these highly focused interests of our children – they can become brilliant at it very very quickly!
So, I hope this has helped – I know at times I have wanted to throw Monty’s Thomas collection in the bin with frustration, but instead of trying to see them as an obstacle or a pain in the bum, I’ve tried to use it positively, to engage and expand learning.
Showing an interest in the obsession means you can enter their world and enjoy it with them, creating the chance for them to communicate and engage when otherwise they may not.