Destructive Habits

Some of my friends with autism pull threads and strings from their clothes and shoes, or tear holes in their shirts or pants. Others pick up items, putting them in their pockets or socks. My colleague, Gloria McDaniel, shares observations about one of her students, and some strategies for dealing with his obsession with tearing clothing and stealing items.

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Gloria writes, “This youngster is now a young adult, but when he was in school, he was in a very structured classroom. He was actually rather cooperative and alert, but his obsession with tearing items was always a problem. It was hard to believe the things he was able to tear with his bare hands. This youngster tore pockets off of every pair of his jeans and tore the waistbands off of his underwear – while wearing them! He tore my guitar case on more than one occasion. To my surprise and dismay, I came up to him on the playground once just as he was completing his task of tearing a leather baseball mitt into many small pieces — with his hands!”

Gloria writes that during the years he was in school, this young student requested a change of untorn clothing after tearing large holes in his clothes. His teachers kept boxes of old t-shirts and other items of clothing for him to tear when he completed work. The staff kept duct tape and masking tape handy to repair his clothing. If the youngster tore his clothing, he was not allowed to change clothes until it was time to go home.

Gloria commented on one strategy that worked unexpectedly. She said, “Funny thing that this youngster would not tear his PE uniform. So, the last couple of years of his time in school, he would change for PE first thing after arriving at school. He was happy wearing his PE uniform all day, and he put his own clothing back on before going home. This all proved to be very effective for him and almost eliminated the problem of torn clothing.”

This youngster also compulsively stole items. The teacher and staff often asked him to empty his pockets, and to remove things from his socks and shoes where he would hide and hoard things. Gloria wrote, “We would see large bulges in the socks where he hid all sorts of items – plastic forks, scraps of paper, items he picked up from student and teacher desks, and even the trash!”

Since tearing clothing and hording items are behaviors encountered by some parents and professionals, we welcome input from readers and listeners who have ideas for dealing with these issues. We will share those responses in future podcasts. Send an e-mail to with your observations and recommendations.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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