Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


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Managing “Fixations” in Kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

"How much should we allow our daughter [high functioning] to play video games? She would spend most of her time doing this if we let her. My husband and I are divided on this issue, which has caused a riff between us."

If you are the mom or dad of a youngster with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism, you may have heard your youngster exclaim, "But I can't live without it!" on more than one occasion. You may also notice that the book bag you just saw him pack is suddenly filled with a few more Harry Potter books. Or perhaps that suitcase for the trip to grandma's house has a Gameboy in it, when he promised he would leave it at home this time.

Fixations or perseverations with certain topics or objects, ranging from books, video games, or trains to history, movies, or any number of other subjects, are a classic symptom of Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism. In addition to impairments in social functioning, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists as a characteristic of the disorder restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:
  • apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
  • encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
  • persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
  • stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)

What's the harm? Well... while these fixations must be understood and accepted as part of the disorder, they are also coping mechanisms that kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism use to escape social anxiety. For example, video games are a very common interest among children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism. Although the virtual world and these games can be a great place for kids to practice social skills, make friends, and have fun, the interest in video games can quickly become an unhealthy and even dangerous obsession.

For kids who get bullied all day at school or feel ostracized and out of place in their everyday lives, it's soothing to come home and play video games for hours. In the safe haven of online gaming, children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism can isolate themselves from real-life people and the complexities of face-to-face interactions. However, the social setting in online gaming or chat rooms is unrealistic and far more predictable than real-life social situations. While social conversations in real life are highly complex and unpredictable, online gamers share a common and simple language for communicating.

Since most online interaction occurs through typing, there is time to think about a response, and the response can be given in symbols and phrases without regard for facial expressions or nonverbal cues. In addition, curse words, rude remarks, and hurtful jokes may be considered socially acceptable online, but they will not be welcome responses in the real world. This disjunction between socially acceptable interactions in the virtual world and the real world can be terribly confusing to kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism who already struggle to understand basic social conventions.

Moms and dads of a youngster on the autism spectrum are thus faced with a dilemma: Do we limit our youngster's time spent doing the activities that interest her most and run the risk that she will withdraw even more, or do we allow her unfettered access to things like video games and science fiction/fantasy books and movies despite the obvious social repercussions?

According to many experts, it's important for moms and dads to find the balance between accepting their youngster's unique interests, and encouraging their youngster to develop social skills and additional interests that might take him outside of his comfort zone. By granting unlimited access to video games and other fixations, moms and dads offer their kids nothing more than a quick fix. The perseveration may be a convenient coping skill for facing the hardship of a long, difficult day at school, but it will not be the healthiest path into adulthood. Kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism need to be challenged to explore other interests and find healthier coping skills. It's easy to use video games and other antisocial outlets to cope, but easier isn't usually better.

If young people with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism aren't encouraged and helped to develop social skills and independent living skills, there will be a direct impact on how many friends they have, and how successful they are in school and on the job later in life. They may be soothed in the short term, but that deep underlying desire to make friends will remain a source of constant dissatisfaction and further isolation.

Addressing fixations is difficult for moms and dads. On one hand, video games and other interests encourage more social interaction than kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism would ordinarily have. On the other hand, it's NOT the kind of social interaction that prepares them for life. Moms and dads should encourage their youngster to develop interpersonal skills “off” of the computer, and set limits around how often the child uses or talks about his or her fixations. Moms and dads should offer incentives to their youngster to balance his or her time spent focused on the fixation and time spent doing social activities. For example, if a youngster is passionate about video games, the mother could agree to allow the youngster a certain amount of time to play each week in exchange for the youngster's participation in an after-school activity.

Parents need to learn how to negotiate their youngster's fixations and find the appropriate balance. For example, if a youngster wants to take the entire series of Harry Potter books on an experiential learning trip, parents can explain that the books are too heavy and the youngster will be permitted to choose only one favorite book. In this way, the parent acknowledges how important the particular interest is to the youngster and offers him a choice in the process, while setting clear and fair limits and ensuring the child will still get the social interaction he needs out of the program. Similarly, if a youngster insists on taking his portable video game or DVD player to summer camp, moms and dads can reach a compromise (e.g., “You can take it and use it on your way to the campsite, but when you arrive, the camp director will hold onto it for you).

When children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism have a clear structure around when they can engage in their particular interest, they are more willing to accept rules limiting its use. At some of the schools that specialize in “special needs” students, the kids are allowed to read their favorite book at designated times, but they are not permitted to bring the book to meals. In this way, the children learn that their interests are perfectly acceptable when explored in socially appropriate ways, places, and times.

The fixations and perseverations of kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism fulfill a need in their lives that will likely never disappear completely. However, their usefulness in real life is extremely limited. Everyone needs an occasional break from the rigors of daily life, but kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism depend on their mother and father to set limits around these fixations and offer guidance in navigating the complex social world around them. By making a plan and following through with it, you accept your youngster for the unique being he or she is, while providing the child with the tools needed to live up to his or her full potential.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... Funny because I had this conversation with my 8 year old son's psychologist recently. He said as a clinician he knows his answer should be "yes" to limit the video games, but he also said that because my son doesn't just play video games, he researches videos about how to defeat levels and finds parody videos about video games (also his biggest game he loves is Minecraft) that the game he plays most and all his research are somewhat educational. He pointed out that if it wasn't that, it would most likely be something else. We do take time away for the rest of a day if he is acting up horribly or not getting schoolwork done. If we don't have anything going on, we let him play. If there are things, he is limited and given several warnings in advance so he can prepare himself to change gears and not have a meltdown over it.
•    Anonymous said... Garek loves Midievil 2......but since he is way ahead in his schoolwork, pulling down As and Bs, and researching .....ok....obsessing about world history......meh.....not a concern
•    Anonymous said... It causes a big riff between the two of us too....but I would limit her playing time for an hour or take the game away for an hour or so if she shows anger, frustration or just being aggressive to it.
•    Anonymous said... My AS son is 13 and gets roughly one hour of video game time each day during the week, right after school. This gives him a break between school and homework which he desperately needs. During the weekend, he may get more time, depending on what's going on in general. My son has a few really good friends in our neighborhood and he loves to be outdoors so as the weather gets better, he spends more and more time outside, which is great. Hope you guys can find a happy medium.
•    Anonymous said... My son loves history as well. Especially about the different wars. We limit video games a lot in our house. If we don't they become an obsession. He has chores around the house that earn his game times.
•    Anonymous said... My son plays video games more than he should. However, living in a small place with no known kids his age in the neighborhood it makes it hard to do much else. Our son does do some reading as well as schoolwork so we feel that some time is ok.
•    Anonymous said... we have same problem

•    Anonymous said... I agree once my lil guy is off the darn thing he becomes so creative and interested in other things
•    Anonymous said... I don't always agree with the 2 hour a day rule when it comes to Aspie kids. It also can help them with social issues, and helps them in reacting to challenging situations without melting down. My son does get more then the generic two hour a day rule suggested by All doctors. That two hours isn't just video game time, they also mean screen time period.
•    Anonymous said... We allow 1.5 hours per day using a timer. Breaks in between. The visual red yellow green light timer from Amazon is what works best for us. We enforce it religiously.
•    Anonymous said... We are in the same boat. During the summer ours plays a lot more but we have him In activities like springboard diving whi h he loves. I use the tablet to help enforce rules. We take computer and tablet time away when he acts out.
•    Anonymous said... We have set a two hour time period where our lad is allowed to play. It turns off when the time is up. He likes having a specific time and often finds himself having so much fun doing other things that he doesn't bother anymore.
•    Anonymous said... We saw a specialist yesterday with our 8 year old. She said to limit to no more than 2 hours a day.
•    Anonymous said... We use an egg timer......and take one, two, three hour breaks.......not while eating, finish priorities first, etc

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Anonymous said...

Lissa Bean
Oh I know! My 6 yo daughter cannot leave the house with out bringing her favorite things in a bag. I have to tell her at least 10 mins before we leave because she gets nervous and packs all her stuff like shes going on vacation! she does the same thing in the bathroom. She always has to have something with her. And when we asked her not to bring things in she would get very upset and say how "she needs it so bad and cannot live without it" we don't give on always but we tell her it'll be ok and that it will be right here when your done. That usually makes her very anxious but we're working on it ;-)
25 minutes ago · Like

Anonymous said...

Great article! It addresses something I have had to work through with my child. I have to limit time with Star Wars book, Legos, and his tendency to fall back on playing with nerf guns and play swords EVERY time company (with kids) comes over. I have to set limits and nudge him in other directions or he will do NOTHING else!

Anonymous said...

Yara Victória Pereira my son has gone to school with his psp on his underwear because he knew he wasn't allowed to take it... :)
43 minutes ago · Like

johnnieR said...

Once when I brought the topic up of playing too many video games my then 10 year old daughter looked at me and said, "But that's the only time I feel like a hero." It broke my heart because I knew how stressful her days at school were. We still struggle to find a balance even though we've eliminated a lot of the stressors by changing schools.

hidstro said...

I feel like there is one important aspect this article leaves out about (specifically) video games and Asperger syndrome. Video games are such a popular topic in tween boys' social conversations. If you go into any middle school cafeteria you would hear lots of boys discussing the latest video game level they are on. When I completely restricted all video games for my AS son("he's addicted! He cant think about anything else!") , he started to fixate on origami instead (a 'not-socially-acceptable' topic of conversation). My husband and I decided that this medium (video games) allows him to interact, socially, with boys his age and gives him something to chat about. It also builds his confidence since he's feels like he's quite good at playing them and the other boys make a big deal about whatever level he's accomplished. That said, we do limit time he can play. We also limit the types of games he plays. I am more on the liberal end of time he spends gaming and my husband tends to be more conservative. Bit I've learned a lesson about taking something completely away. It will be replaced with something else...possibly something that stigmatized a child even further.

Drexel Clayton said...

Hi! I'm not a parent, in fact I'm only 17 years old, but I am on the autism spectrum (PDD-NOS) so I have some insight I thought you may be interested in hearing.

I don't see these fixations as entirely a 'need' or a 'burden', but a gift in many ways. You say their usefulness in real life is extremely limited, and I disagree. The reason I am going to become a either a doctor or a physician assistant is because of a book I read called "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks" which prompted a fixation in neurology that persists to this day (I read it about over two years ago). In fact I can think of a couple examples of fixations which have benefited society as a whole: Temple Grandin's fixation with cattle ranches prompted her invention of humane livestock facilities, having designed 1/3 of all livestock handling facilities in the US, as well as her invention of a squeeze machine that serves as a comforting coping mechanism to replace hugs that would otherwise increase an autistic person's anxiety rather than reduce it. Greta Thunberg's concern, and I would argue fixation, with Climate Change, is the reason she's a climate change activist who has worked so hard to fight for reducing carbon emissions. These are two incredibly inspiring people whose fixations have changed society for the better.

My fixations have been harmful in some instances, and I definitely agree that parents need to control them if they get out of hand. For instance, sometimes my interest in neurology has gotten so extreme to the point where I spend hours in a day studying things like cranial nerves, while struggling to not neglect self-care and my social life. Also, while I've passed the phase of video games to the point of having just about zero interest, I used to play Minecraft all day to the point where I was isolated and not having the social interactions that I needed to be fulfilled and not depressed. However, I think it's important to acknowledge the value that these fixations have, for not only the autistic person, but society.

I've had a lot of struggles that stem from my autism, but I'd rather learn to cope with them and reduce them rather than taking a 'cure', which would get rid of not only the bad parts, but the good parts that stem from my autism as well. I consider my fixations not only one of the good parts of my autism, but one of the main reasons I don't want to be cured. Why? Well, not only do I enjoy them, but I've gotten an amazing number of talents and knowledge from them. I play piano and guitar extremely well, I've learned to draw very well, and I've accumulated knowledge about academic disciplines which interest me, such as the medical sciences, history, and a little bit of political science/economics being only just some examples. I'm an activist for political and social change, and I've had a recent burst of energy in regards to the inhumane conditions of the immigration detention centers which I would consider a fixation; a fixation which has prompted me to fight for justice.

You say they should be managed if they become unhealthy or harmful in any way, and believe me I absolutely agree. However I think you fail to acknowledge that they can be incredibly useful for not only autistic people, but society as a whole. Many people on the autism spectrum have something to offer to society that not everyone has, and the fixations are no exception. Sorry my post was a little lengthy, but thanks for reading this far!

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