Saturday, October 26, 2013

Autism and Obsessive Behaviors

The definition of obsession from the Free Dictionary:
  1. Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.
  2.  A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion.
My son at age four.


Many children with autism have obsessive behaviors. Some obsessions may provide a feeling of structure during the day, and may be calming to autistic children after too much external stimuli. Other obsessive behaviors are triggered by overpowering emotions and the child’s inability to express them. I get to see first hand how different stimuli trigger obsessive behavior in my 7-year-old autistic son, “Lee”. I define an obsession as something he feels he must do or cannot control doing.

Fire

This definitely a dangerous obsession. When I noticed him trying to stick objects in lighted candles, I thought I was being clever by putting candles up high on shelves where Lee couldn’t reach them. I didn’t take into account his great throwing arm and his incredible aim.One evening I smelled hair and plastic burning. I ran into the bathroom to see a burning hairbrush in a candle I had placed on top of a high cabinet. Luckily I was able to extinguish the fire before it spread, but I learned NO CANDLES! No matter how much I love the smell, it is too dangerous an obsession for my son.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

My first suspicion that Lee had autism occurred when I noticed his obsession with lining up toy cars. He started this at about 18 months of age, and would do it over and over for hours. It was either one straight line or several rows of neatly arranged cars. Woe to anyone or anything that disturbed his rows!

 Lee eventually added planes and trains to his row making, but each is grouped with its own kind. This is a soothing obsession for Lee. It calms him after a rough day interacting at school, and after other over-stimulating social activities.This obsession has lasted for 5 years now, though it seems to be waning as Lee discovers new obsessions, such as making cars and trucks out of building blocks.

Drawing 

Lee’s pictures are very detailed. When he draws ships he has to include anchors, radar towers, and many, many portholes. Pictures of houses include lawn mowers, mail boxes, and toys in the yard. This is a positive obsession. It is useful at restaurants and during long car trips. Drawing is also used as a reward in his classroom, and is a soothing “before bed” activity.

Vehicles in the Breakdown Lane

This obsession started during our car trip from NC to ND and back last year. After I explained that a car in the breakdown lane is probably “broke down,” Lee now gets upset when he sees other cars parked alongside a highway. He wants me to answer “why,” even though he has a “correct” answer in his mind. I must keep guessing until I get the right answer, i.e. the affected car has a flat tire or is a highway worker’s car. Each time I answer incorrectly he gets angrier and angrier. This negative obsession causes a lot of stress to both of us on a long car trip.


Headlights and Empty Vehicles

I can understand why Lee might get upset over broken down cars. He may think it could happen to us while we are travelling. But I have no idea why it upsets him to see a parked car with its lights left on. I get the same “why” questions, and must answer “correctly.” He will want me to drive back to see if the lights get turned off. He also will stare out the window of our home for 30 minutes or more if a neighbor leaves his car and doesn’t turn off the headlights. This is another negative obsession; I have had to chase after Lee when he ran out of a restaurant to see if a car in the parking lot had turned its lights off yet.

Scratching His Back

Lee doesn’t like to be cuddled, and will turn his face away from kisses. Except for the occasional brief hug, he doesn’t like physical contact. He does allow me to scratch his back while he is in bed. We started doing this a few years ago, and now it is a must-do nightly ritual. If I am not there to do it when he falls asleep, he will wake up and ask me to do it when I check on him. This is a positive obsession and my favorite; it lets me share some of the nurturing physical contact every mom wishes to have with her child.


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