When my autistic child Sophie was young, she was obsessed with people’s hair. She was compelled to touch, feel, and comment on the hair of every woman she saw.
The obsession seemed harmless enough, in fact, the people she approached seemed to genuinely enjoy Sophie’s attention and compliments. But there were times when Sophie’s hair touching compulsion led her into dangerous territory.
Her intense interest in hair caused her to dart across streets and leave my side in crowded public spaces. I was torn about what to do.
Touching people’s hair brought Sophie so much joy, but it also brought me, her introverted mother, plenty of anxiety. Obsessive behaviors and intense areas of focus are extremely common in autistic individuals. And I know I’m not alone in the struggle to figure out how to approach these obsessive behaviors.
Should You Discourage Your Child’s Obsessive Behavior?
Asking yourself a few simple questions can help you determine how to approach your child’s obsessive behaviors.
- Is the obsessive behavior dangerous to your child?
- Is the obsessive behavior dangerous to others?
- Is the obsessive behavior inappropriate?
If the answer to either one of these questions is yes, you should work to find an alternative, safer, behavior.
How to Find an Alternative to Your Child’s Dangerous Obsessive Behavior
If your child’s compulsion is dangerous to them or to someone else (i.e. playing with toilet water or fire) you’ll need to find a replacement behavior that meets the same need as their current repetitive behavior.
Start by asking yourself, “What function does this behavior serve for my child?” In the case of playing with toilet water, perhaps your child likes the cold wet sensation.
Then think about more appropriate ways to meet that need. Would setting out a large bowl of water for your child to play with fill the same need?
Sometimes our autistic children’s behaviors are just inappropriate in certain settings (i.e. putting their hands in their pants). In this scenario, you can work with your child to understand the nuances of rules in different environments. Teaching them the right place and time for these actions is important.
Remove Your Own Reaction from Your Assessment
When our child’s repetitive behavior makes you feel confused or uncomfortable it can be tempting to try and change it even if it’s not dangerous. With Sophie, I found myself initially wanting to shut it down because it was embarrassing for me.
I had to think about the behavior in a different way. For the most part it didn’t cause her or anyone else harm, instead people were actually finding joy from it. That was a hard shift for me to make mentally.
I’m always interested to hear other parents of autistic children’s experience with obsessions and intense areas of focus.
Please share in the comments what your child’s obsessions are and any tips you have for redirecting these behaviors. Or, perhaps you’re like me, and you’ve struggled to accept your child’s repetitive behaviors. Let me know how you’ve dealt with that.
Sharing and being vulnerable with one another in this autism community is the only way we can learn and grow together.
Be gentle with yourself. You’re doing a great job.
I hope this information has been helpful to you as part of creating Your Autism Game Plan.
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