Autism & Obsessions: Part II
To say that my son Caleb, who has autism, merely “likes” things is a gross understatement! We’ve spent the last 12 ½ years navigating extreme obsessions, and working through how to teach our son moderation, and understanding the value of money when it comes to wanting everything that was ever made for a particular thing! For the last year or so he’s had tunnel vision for Cars 1. Not the movie, actually, but for the toy cars from the movie. More specifically, every freakin’ toy car ever made from the Cars 1 movie!!! There’s a race scene with a bunch of obscure cars, and Caleb has watched the clip of this race on YouTube over and over, and has watched toy demos over and over, and has read lists over and over about which cars are in the race scene, and what their names are, who their sponsors are, what colours they are, and “we will find them at Toys R Us Mom!” he says every time we drove by a Toys R Us! Truthfully, for a time we would stop into Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, and even Shoppers Drug Mart to check if their Cars 1 toys selection had changed. We had to do it without Caleb though because if he saw one he’d been pining for, he wouldn’t stop talking about it. There was no buying it secretly and giving it to him later! If he knew we had in our possession a Cars 1 racer, well, you could put what scrapes of sanity you had left into the trash, because you were going to be HARASSED about it endlessly!!! End…less…ly……
He has moved on slightly from the all consuming Cars 1 racers, so the endless ramblings about the cars have ceased (for now!), and the obsessive asking for whatever new car he’s discovered from the illusive race scene has stopped, but they are still very much a part of his life. He still brings his ENTIRE COLLECTION of cars with him in a bag everywhere we go. Ya know, just in case?
FYI, Caleb’s current obsessions are (in no particular order): The Italian Job video game, Forza Horizon video game, Veggie Tales (this has been a recurring obsession for 10 years!), and with this particular obsession comes none-stop quoting of lines, and demanding that the rest of us quote them for him! We are here for his amusement, of course. J Moving on, he’s also obsessed with toilets. Yes, I did say toilets. If he’s had a good day at school, part of his reward is 5 minutes “toilet time” on the computer. What does this mean, exactly? Well, for some reason completely unknown to me, there are hundreds and hundreds of videos that people have taken of different toilets in different locations. I don’t know, I don’t understand it either! But Caleb loves watching these different toilets, the different noises they make, the different styles they could be, and some of them make him laugh out loud. Not sure why. For a while this obsession became a problem because everywhere we went he NEEDED to use the bathroom to “check out” their toilet situation. It also became a problem because at school, for instance, he would say he needed to use the bathroom 20 times a day, and so he’d be allowed to go, just in case he really actually had to go. Which usually, he didn’t. We had to place restrictions on his toilet use at church too because we’d leave him at Sunday School, and as soon as we left he’d tell his helper he needed to use the bathroom, then he’d enter, and never come out! Not until we came back to get him, and then he’d come out sheepishly, apologizing insincerely. He’s getting way better at public washrooms (and I want to remind the world that at one point in Caleb’s life he was TERRIFIED of public washrooms, and would rather use his pants then enter the public bathroom! So, trust me when I say you never know which direction your special needs child may go when it comes to “troubling issues”!), and has stopped asking repeatedly to use the bathroom when we go somewhere.
We see how Caleb’s obsessions work for good and bad. For example, he is able to connect in some ways with kids who like the things he’s currently interested in, but unfortunately, more often than not it alienates him because someone will say “Hi Caleb, how are you today?”, and he will respond (in a very fast, not so clear kind of way), “there will be an Austin Mini Cooper in The Italian Job video game, and there will be a Honda Civic in the Forza Horizon video game at Isaac Beatty’s house!!”. The response from whoever asked the question is usually, “um……what?”. Yeah, that’s a common “conversation” in Caleb’s life.
So, how do we balance his obsessions with real life? Well, a lot of trial and error still, but what we find most effective is using his obsessions as a reward only, and not as a “well, he’s crazy about this, I guess he can do it all day!” sort of mind-set. It can be easy to do that, to be honest, but it is not beneficial to Caleb in the long run. He needs to learn in his autistic, sometimes close minded, tunnel vision life, that having interests is healthy and normal, but shouldn’t rule everything you do.
This may sound judgemental, and it’s not meant to be at all…but when I meet or hear of special needs kids who spend all their time doing (insert obsession) because it “makes them happy”, I can’t help but feel badly for that child. I mean, unless their obsession is something super constructive like fund-raising or maybe cleaning, I can’t see how letting them do whatever they want to do all day, everyday, is a healthy and productive way to grow up. Us parents have a tough job raising kids, and raising special needs kids just ups the ante on how driven and focused we need to be with where we want them to go.
I recently heard someone say that if you don’t know where you’re going, then you won’t know if you’re on the right road, and you won’t know when you get there. That struck a chord with me because, well, it’s so freakin’ true, but it really felt so applicable to raising Caleb and being extra aware of what we doing to put him onto a path that is leading him into adulthood.
So, if we let him obsessively watch toilets on YouTube, and flush every toilet we ever saw, he would become someone that couldn’t possibly attend school, hold a job, be a good son, friend, or have deep meaningful relationships at all.
So, back to my point – obsessions as rewards. Caleb gets to keep his Cars toys with him, obviously, but to use them as a reward, if he’s been unkind to his sisters, we take away 2 of his Cars characters, and he doesn’t get them back for a week. He likes the “collection” to always be together, so taking two out is hard for him. Sometimes he’s got 6-8 gone at one time because he’s been particularly “edgy” with his sisters, but we have found that in the last few months this method of character training has been beneficial to him, and the incidences of upset between him and his sisters is decreasing.
Also, If Caleb has had a good day at school, he gets to have “free computer time”, with the first 5 minutes being “toilet time”. If his day was pretty good, but with perhaps a few hiccups, then he still gets computer time, but no toilets. If we’re out and about, and Caleb hasn’t asked endlessly to see the toilets in whatever locations we’re at, we let him check them out. We’ll say something like, “thanks for not asking repeatedly to go to the bathroom and see the toilets, how about we pop into this bathroom to see their toilets for doing such a good job?”. That always makes his day!
Using the things he’s constantly drawn to and thinking about as training tools is (in my opinion) a very effective way to bring up a child, special needs or otherwise.
That’s how grown-ups live though, right? Hahaha, well, maybe kind of. I’m sure the toilet scenario doesn’t apply to many people! But, if you love something, usually it’s only something that you get to do occasionally, or it’s something you plan do to like going out for a nice dinner, visiting friends, etc. Most neuro-typical (non-autistic) adults know that just because you like your friends doesn’t mean you should quit your job and spend all day following your friends around. Or if you like going out for meals you should just go out for every meal, every day. We learn the skill of applying moderation to those things we enjoy. So, if I allow my son to simply indulge endlessly in his obsessions because it’s “just autism”, and “it makes him happy”, I may as well pick him up and set him on the road that leads nowhere.
I want (I dream, I hope, I pray) for Caleb to become a young man who can develop deep and meaningful relationships, for him to have a girlfriend and be the best boyfriend ever, for hime to be a caring and loving son and brother, for him to hold a job, and be a tremendously contributing member of society. All those things won’t come to him if he’s allowed to shut himself up into his own world of toilets, Cars 1, Veggie Tales, the Italian Job video game, and whatever else he suddenly catches sight of that turns him into a tunnel vision monster!
I secretly hope he will become a plumber though. Let’s talk about using obsessions to fuel careers, shall we!?! Ok, I’ll save that for another time (or, you can read a post I wrote a long time ago about it). But honestly, if this toilet thing persists, becoming a plumber would be a very important, reliable, and fulfilling job for Caleb. I mean, he actually, honest-to-goodness LOVES toilets! J And we’re always gonna need shitters! Excuse my French.
It is always my hope that somewhere in my ramblings, there is something helpful you can draw from it. Raising a child with special needs is, well, special! That means taking special care to look to their future, and see where you hope they will go. From there, you take the tools you have (even those sometimes pesky obsessions!), and create a life that builds on your child’s strengths, challenges their weaknesses, and creates a life that will be fulfilling for your child.
9/12/2021 09:26:53 am
Hey Amy-Lyn, my name is Joe my full name is Joe-Banna pronounced Joe-Bah-nna lol My son is 8 and has this insane obsession with bathrooms since last year and a teacher had crossed a boundary with me and made it worse for my kid. I actually requested to friend you on instagram to ask how your son was doing. How is your family doing? I had Lucas much older so when I noticed he was having issues as an infant I didn't have any more children. So it's just the three of us. Hope to hear from ya! Joe
2/25/2023 11:24:28 am
Dear Amy-Lyn, Thank you for making me giggle. I too have an adult son with autism. One of his earliest obsessions was with uvalas. There was a uvala frame in every animated cartoon he owned, which was an insane number of VHS tapes. When meeting new people, he would get really close to their face and say,
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Hi, I'm Amy-Lyn!
I am the lady behind this here blog! I live in the sticks with my animals, my super handsome husband, and my
3 amazing kids!
Here you'll find things from recipes (gluten-free, paleo, and strait up junk food!), DIY ideas, thoughts on raising a son with autism, and whatever else pops into my brain! : )
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