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How to Deal with Obsessions and Rituals in Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum

Question

Dear Mr. Hutten,

I appreciate all the newsletters, and have come to think that you might be able to offer advice. My son (KW- I will use his initials) is 14, and although my husband prefers to call him "normal", for me, it’s a little more reasonable to say that he has AS (as was diagnosed). I'm around him more. I see the tendency to rock, and the need to hold something in his hand, etc. There are a couple of symptoms that he does not have like having "meltdowns" in public or extreme reaction to loud noise. But he does have enough symptoms that generally I think he may have it. Whether he does or not, the advice for AS is right on the nose for him.

This is my dilemma - KW saw spit coming out of my mouth when I was speaking forcefully about his homework, and from that time has developed a sort of theory that whenever I talk I spit. From there, he started spitting in order to get rid of the germs that he thought went into his mouth. (I really apologize if this is a bit too gross). So now he softly allows saliva to fall onto his clothes or book or whatever.

I of course told him that spitting in that fashion was not ok and have gone to great lengths to tell him only babies spit, or "you did not do that when you were 12, why do you do it now?" I tried many different things, including explaining that his practice does not aid in getting rid of germs. But it is such a habit at this point. Also, along the same line of reasoning, he covers his food with his hand whenever I come near to avoid getting my germs on it. This really breaks my heart. But that’s what "he's into" at the moment.

He also was becoming obsessed with some sort of problem with his face. He's a genuinely good looking boy. However, there is something that he finds unacceptable. He was getting very upset and started looking at himself in the mirror and yelling something like "NO, no, no." Anyway, I tried to tell him that he was handsome but he would not accept that. He was really very upset and even cried. Then I told him something about hormones at his age causing the trouble. Anyway, he came up with another "theory" of sorts that his life is devastated because he is forced to accept something about himself that he cannot accept.

Up until he found out there was not going to be a spiderman 4, he was into blogging about Spiderman on the internet. But when he found out it was over, he lost his area of interest. Now he has no hobby and I think that these issues have become his hobby.

I wish I had been more wise a few years ago and that I could still hug him, but that is not the case. He will initiate conversation with me when he has something to say, but so often the conversation I initiate is centered around the daily task of getting homework done, or picking up or something. I am practically like his enemy. But the problem is that if he does not talk to me, then he spends his whole time at home just daydreaming, which is getting worse in terms of the amount of time and he is really tuning out.

I am thinking that maybe he needs counseling. When I went to a counselor a couple years ago he told me that if my son has AS, (no diagnosis back then) then the only counseling he could do is to help the parents. But at school there is a really great special ed teacher who works with KW on various social situations and is making some progress. I thought maybe someone could help him come to terms with these issues. My husband is not able to face it right now. And I have blown my relationship with KW by pushing him to get through the daily tasks.

This is my third attempt to write this letter. No matter how I write it, it seems like something that is not reasonable to send. Yet I keep trying. So I am going to send it as-is this time and not rewrite it again.

Thank you for your time.

J.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Answer

I see two issues here: (1) obsessions/rituals and (2) low self-esteem.

Rituals and obsessions are one of the hallmarks of ASD (high-functioning autism). In order to cope with the anxieties and stresses about the chaotic world around them, kids often obsess and ritualize their behaviors to comfort themselves. While some kids may spend their time intensely studying one area, others may be compulsive about cleaning, lining up items or even doing things which put them or others in danger.

Here are some suggestions to help:

1. Be prepared for resistance by arming yourself with suggestions and alternatives to your youngster's behavior. A great way of doing this is by creating a "social story". Carol Gray's Social Stories site is a great resource for parents and educators alike to create books which will modify behavior in kids with autistic spectrum disorders.

2. Choose your battles wisely. Breaking an obsession or ritual is like running a war campaign. If not planned wisely or if you attempt to fight on many fronts, you're guaranteed to fail. Not only is it time consuming and tiring, it means you can't devote 100% to each particular area. So, if you have a youngster with a game obsession, a phobia of baths and bedtime troubles, choose only one to deal with. Personally, and I have had that choice, I dealt with the bedtime troubles. Using logic, a sleep deprived youngster certainly isn't going to deal with behavioral modification in other areas well. Plus, it was having an effect on his overall health. Deal with the worst first!

3. Communicate with your youngster to explain the effect that his or her ritual is having on your family as a whole. My child's 2am wake-up calls were affecting me mentally, emotionally and physically, and I told him so. I pulled some research off the internet about sleep needs and discussed this with him.

4. Speak to professionals for advice. Contact your pediatrician for recommendations for behavior therapists. Your local parent support groups and national associations, such as the National Autistic Society, will not only provide you support but the information you need to move forward with your youngster.

5. When breaking an obsession or ritual, examine the ways that you may have fed into this. With my child's bedtime activities, I found I was too tired to fight his waking up at 2am. While dealing with this ritual, I ensured I was in bed early myself so I had enough sleep in me to knock his night owl tendencies on the head.

6. When tackling any problem with any youngster, Aspergers or not, it's always best to remain calm at all times. Kids can feed off your anger, frustration and anxiety, so keeping a level head at all times is essential. If you feel a situation is escalating and elevating your blood pressure, take a step back and collect yourself.

Some Practical Tips to Build Healthy Self-Esteem—

1. Always comment on any procedure that is done well, but aim not to comment when it is poorly done!

2. Ask permission to comment on their progress from your perspective.

3. Ask permission to work with them on any improvements they think might be necessary.

4. Avoid using words that denote something is ‘bad’, ‘rubbish’, ‘a mess’, ‘awful’, ‘could be better’, ‘poor’, or ‘incompetent’. Individuals with AS can be quick to pick up on all that they are not, rather than on what they are or could be!

5. Discuss with your child/spouse how they view their own achievements and/or progress.

6. Focus in on the successes, not the failures, mistakes or ‘could be improved’.

7. If they think they are ‘the best’, ask them to explore their reasoning with you.

8. If they think they are ‘the worst’, ask them to explore their reasoning with you. Be careful not to use ‘why’ questions and always frame or structure your question so that they have a framework to respond in. Avoid open-ended questions -- we don’t know how to answer them!

9. Never assume that your comments for their improvement will be welcome, either ask to be invited to comment or share your own experience with them, if allowed to, being careful NOT to compare yours to theirs. Just state the facts.

10. Offer lots and lots of positive reinforcement. I don’t mean bribes, but well-timed approval is terrific. Not only does it let us know that we are OK, but it's’ useful in teaching us what the most appropriate response might be. An example taken from personal experience is: "He always monopolizes the dinner table conversation, so one day I waited for a pause as he was eating, and I said, ‘you know Kyle, you talk much less at the table than you used to, and sometimes you listen to what others say and follow the dinner conversation’."

Good luck,

Mark

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
 

Articles in Alphabetical Order: 2021

 Articles in Alphabetical Order: 2021

 

o   A Message to Older Teens and Young Adults with ASD

o   Articles in Alphabetical Order: 2020

o   ASD [Level 1]: 15 Simple Strategies for Parents of...

o   Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD

o   Can my son with ASD truly understand love?

o   Children on the Autism Spectrum and Behavioral Pro...

o   Educating Students with ASD [Level 1]: Comprehensi...

o   Employment Support for Employees with Autism Level 1

o   How Anxiety May Affect Your Autistic Child in Adul...

o   How the Traits of ASD May Affect Relationships in ...

o   How to Avoid "Negative Reinforcement": Tips for Pa...

o   How to Create a Sensory Safe Haven for Your Child

o   How to Diffuse Meltdowns in a Child on the Autism ...

o   How to Help Your Adult Child to Find Employment

o   How to Teach Organizational Skills to Kids on the ...

o   Is ASD Just a Different Way of Thinking?

o   Issues that Females on the Autism Spectrum May Exp...

o   Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Associa...

o   Learning to Parent a Child with a Diagnosis of Au...

o   Low Self-Esteem and "Sensitivities to Criticism" i...

o   Message to Teens on the Autism Spectrum: What Are ...

o   Message to Teens on the Spectrum: What Does Your N...

o   Mind-Blindness and Alexithymia in Children and Tee...

o   Motivating Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum

o   Nonverbal Learning Disorder versus Autism Spectrum...

o   Parenting Out-of-Control Teens with ASD Level 1 [H...

o   Parenting Tips for Moms and Dads on the Autism Spe...

o   Parent's Concrete Plan to Avert Meltdowns in Kids ...

o   Parents’ Management of Temper Tantrums in Children...

o   Problems with "Sensory Overload" in Children on th...

o   Putting a Positive Spin on Your Negativity: Tips f...

o   Resolving School Behavior Problems in Kids on the ...

o   Rituals and Obsessions in Children with ASD [Level 1]

o   School Refusal in Children with ASD

o   Should You "Push" Your Adult Child with ASD to Be ...

o   Sleep Problems in Teens on the Autism Spectrum

o   Teenage Son with ASD has Stopped Going to School

o   The "Suicide Threat" in Teenagers with Autism Spec...

o   The Difference Between Autism Spectrum Disorder an...

o   The schools do not understand the characteristics...

o   Tics in Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum

o   Videos for Parents Who Have ASD: Help for Marital ...

o   What Your Child on the Autism Spectrum May Experie...

o   When Your Child with ASD Does Not "Bond" Well with...

o   Why Your Teenager with ASD Can Be Moody and Depressed

o   Your Child on the Autism Spectrum has Many Strengt...

o   Your Child on the Autism Spectrum May Be a Logical...

Kids with ASD and Their Problems with Perfectionism

“I'd like to ask you about a very big problem for our autistic (high functioning) son - his perfectionism! Can you give me some advice on what to do about this issue, because I believe it is a major contributing factor to his never-ending anxiety, especially when doing his homework?”

Although it may be hard to completely change a "special needs" youngster’s perfectionist nature, there are many things that parents can do to help their child find a better balance and not be so hard on himself.

Please consider these suggestions:

1. The pressure to be perfect may stem from school (or other areas where perfectionism is exhibited) being the only place from where your son derives self-worth. Try to expand your son’s notion of his identity by finding activities for him to participate in that do not involve scoring or competition (i.e., activities that simply exist to feel good and have fun).

2. Regularly remind your son to “keep it simple” and “make it fun.”



3. Make sure that you are not deriving your own sense of worth only from your son’s accomplishments.

4. Look for books and movies that provide role models of real people or characters who succeeded after a long line of failures.

5. Let your son make mistakes. Offer minor assistance and support if asked, but let him turn in work that is truly his own so he can get comfortable with constructive feedback. Allowing kids to do their own work and make mistakes not only can decrease a sense of pressure on them to always present a perfect front to the outside world, but also gives them the confidence that they can succeed on their own without the parent’s help.

6. Address faulty or unhealthy logic in your son’s thinking. Perfectionists tend to think in terms of “all-or-nothing” (e.g., “If I don’t get 100% on this quiz, then I’m dumb!”).

7. Keep the focus on the importance of learning new material or a new skill, rather than being the best. When your son brings home a perfect test score, you can say something like, “You worked really hard to learn that tough material,” instead of, “Excellent work – another 100%!”




8. If your son is spending too much time on homework, set a time limit so that he has to stop working and relax a bit. Explain the situation to his teacher and ask for help with what you are trying to teach your son.

9. Have a mantra in your house, for example, “Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to have fun learning and enjoy the process.” You may also want to consider finding a different word to use instead of “mistake” (e.g., everyone has “challenges” …or, everyone has to make a “detour” now and then).

10. Find activities for your son where he will not be the best. Help him learn how to handle being in such a circumstance. Do not let him stop the activity because it is too difficult or uncomfortable.

11. Do not discount your son’s school anxiety with statements like, “There’s no need to worry, I know you’ll get 100% on that test – you always do!” Even though your intentions are of the best, your son may interpret statements like that as adding more pressure to maintain his status. Instead, tell him that what matters most is putting forth enough effort to learn the subject matter, regardless of what the grade is.

12. Be careful about over-scheduling, and make sure that your son has time “scheduled” to just relax.

13. Be a good role model yourself by not holding yourself to perfectionist standards and showing your son how you handle mistakes. Point out what you did and how you learned from it.

14. Even though the pressure to be perfect often seems to come from the youngster himself, evaluate the messages that you are giving to your son. Even if you tell him that high grades or first-place trophies do not matter to you, if he hears you bragging about such honors all the time, he may feel a lot of trepidation about continuing to bring them home. Your son needs to understand that your love is unconditional, and not based on how well he does in school. Point out other ways in which he makes you proud (e.g., when he helps you around the house, when he is kind to others, etc.).

15. Lastly, have plenty of patience with your son. Don’t pressure him to relax and be “less than perfect.” It takes a lot of practice to overcome perfectionism!


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

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism
 

COMMENTS:

Anonymous said… I have come to except that its a packaged deal and is part of the OCD that hangs them up, allow for more time so he can make the corrections he needs to feel good about his work remember he sees flaws where your eyes see nothing but perfection.

Anonymous said… I'm loving this group. It's so helpful! Thanks...

Anonymous said… In fact, it is such that he will avoid doing his homework as much as possible, then the following morning when it is due, he is having a fit "because he needs to get it done....NOW!"

Anonymous said… It may not be a bad thing. I believe I suffered with some of the attributes of asperger when young - still do, getting obsessed with things being one of them. But that allows me to study and learn most trades, I have several degrees including a PhD and I earn a good salary, the only hindrance is saying a development project is finished and ready to go to market which we manage with certain constraining rules. I would be happy if my boys managed a good education that could earn them a decent salary, I don't see why they shouldn't achieve this and I will do everything in my power to make that happen. So I don't feel Perfectionism and the Obsessive nature is a bad factor of Asperger, the tantrums when over whelmed are the nasty attributes. As for the anxiety, I look at what I've managed before and make sure the next time it's better, I make that my satisfaction, which controls the anxiety, Back to what we were told a few days ago, to engineer their lives to succeed even if it's in little steps so taking any failure out of the equation.

Anonymous said… my aspie just wants to get credit for it, but doesn't actually want to do the work on it.

Anonymous said… My daughter is that way, too. Homework we can manage because it's too easy for her (first grade), but at school, she will meltdown if the teacher wants to display the classes work and she sees hers as not perfect enough, even though it's miles better then her classmates.

Anonymous said… tell him everyone messes up and does things wrong everyday. Maybe give him examples in writing and pictures. Tell him its okay and it everything doesn't have to be perfect.

Anonymous said… What I find is that if one part came out wrong, then the whole thing is messed up and sometimes it will get destroyed. The CF/GF diet has helped immensely.

 Add your comment below…

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How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

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Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

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Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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My Aspergers Child - Syndicated Content