Obsessing About Obsessions

Flapping hands. Rocking. Ehoing phrases or words. Repeating sequences of numbers or letters. Humming. Murmuring. Spinning objects. Playing with threads or strings. Tapping or slapping objects. Chewing on hair or fingernails. Talking about one person or topic repetitively. Insisting on the same food or clothing or daily routine. These are among the long list of obsessions characteristic of individuals with autism. What is the most productive way to deal with obsessions? At what point do we become obsessed with obsessions of our friends with autism?

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It seems to me that a great deal of time and energy is spent in attempts to extinguish repetitive behaviors and to diminish obsessive interests of individuals with autism. A junior high teacher commented recently that she wasn’t certain she agreed with IEP goals for diminishing rocking and hand posturing for one of her students. “When he makes a comment in class, he just gets excited,” said the teacher. “But his rocking and hand movements don’t seem to interfere with his ability to express his opinion and the other students don’t seem to be distracted, so I don’t see the value in bringing attention to the behaviors.”

A teenager with autism wrote that she felt obligated to hide her tendency to flap her hands and her rather intense interest in a certain topic in order to please her parents. “I think they are embarrassed that I am autistic,” she commented. “Or maybe these obsessions just irritate them.”

For whatever reason, obsessive interests and repetitive, ritualistic behaviors are inherent in autism. Under certain circumstances, there is certainly merit in addressing these issues. People might want to ask these questions when considering an unusual preoccupation or a persistent ritual.
1. Is it detrimental to the well-being of the individual with autism?
2. Does it threaten the safety of the individual or people around him/her?
3. Is it disruptive to others in the classroom, job site, or living situation?
4. Is it irritating to others who spend time with the person?
5. Is it in the best interest of the individual with autism to decrease the frequency or intensity of the behavior?
Depending on the answers to this question, target goals and strategies can be developed to address the issues in an appropriate manner. We welcome your opinion about this issue. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to talk@FAQautism.com

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

Published on: Mar 20, 2008

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