If your child will often hyperfocus on a special interest, she’s not alone. She shares that trait with many other children and adults with autism. How much should parents allow their children to indulge in their obsessions?
Hyperfocus is an obsessive interest on one thing almost to the exclusion of everything else. Neurotypical people also have interests, but for an autistic person, the degree of enthusiasm will be much more intense.
While this can often indicate great talent in our kids, the fact remains that such obsessions can be hard for the family to cope with from day to day.
If Suzie loves to paint beautiful pictures but won’t do anything else, this could clearly interfere with daily life for Suzie and for the whole family.
Before we explore if or how much Suzie and other children should be allowed to fixate on their interests, we should understand why they experience such intense obsessions in the first place.
The first, most obvious reason is that they simply enjoy their area of interest to a very high degree.
Another reason some autistic children often become obsessed with one behavior or thing is that it gives them a sense that they have some control and predictability over their lives. The sameness of repetition may be comforting when other aspects of their lives are less predictable.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, other children may be obsessed precisely because they lack control over their own behavior.
One person I know with mild autism is intensely interested in sports. He enjoys thinking, talking and reading about it. But sometimes, even when he feels he’s had enough of that subject for one afternoon, he’s still unable to “turn off” his obsession. It’s as if his brain insists on going on and on about sports even if he’s tired of thinking about it.
In other cases, there may also be some connection with fear or anxiety they may be experiencing.
Some people with autism say that to hyperfocus actually helps them cope with their anxiety and depression.
For others, however, allowing their hyperfocus to take over their lives might actually make things worse.
For example, Timothy might spend hours and hours researching websites or YouTube videos out of fear that it’s wrong to play computer games. He may be so anxious that what he loves to do might be wrong that he obsesses over trying to prove through his research that it’s okay to engage in his favorite pastime.
Hyperfocus has been known in some cases to be increased by an allergy to something, such as dairy. So in the interest of protecting your child’s health, it may be a good idea to have her tested for allergies if her fixations are severe.
There are some who feel that this type of obsessive behavior is unhealthy and problematic. This can be true to some degree.
Timothy’s worries over looking up information on whether it’s right or wrong to play video games may be based on an obsessive compulsive disorder. Allowing him to engage in fear-based web searching could be a never-ending spiral downward into more fear and paranoia.
As mentioned earlier, if the obsession is rooted in an allergy to something, we as parents should know about that so we can take steps to protect our children’s health.
There also may be cases when the behavior interferes with the family’s ability to go out anywhere or to take a vacation. For example, if Billy is interested in building model airplanes and can’t bring himself to stop to go out anywhere, that could interfere with any plans the family might have to go out of the house.
Or Leah, a budding piano player might be tempted to practice her skill to the exclusion of everything else. A severe enough obsession could not only interfere with family plans, but even discourage healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and practicing good hygiene.
It may also cut into Leah’s need to engage in social interaction with family members and friends.
Overly excessive interests can limit a child’s social development in other ways as well if left unchecked.
For example, if Sam talks nonstop about sports statistics, too much sports talk to the exclusion of every other subject can be off-putting for people he might meet. Allowing excessive talk on one subject is to neglect to teach him good social skills.
But intense focus on a single subject is not always a bad thing.
For many people with autism, focusing on their special interest can actually decrease the stress in their lives and help them to get their minds off of their anxieties.
And in some cases, an autistic child’s passion may even be the start of a great talent or even a profitable career.
Consider great men and women of the past (and present) who excelled in their area of expertise precisely because their autistic obsession drove them to it.
Men like Michelangelo, whose obsessive attention to detail resulted in an amazing masterpiece painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Or Albert Einstein, whose intense focus on physics brought major breakthroughs to the world.
And most of us have heard of Temple Grandin, who through her obsession with science invented livestock equipment that many companies use today.
Other geniuses who were reported to have autism include Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Charles Richter, who devised the Richter magnitude scale of measuring earthquakes.
These people might never have shared their amazing contributions if they had not been permitted to “obsess” over their interests.
So when our kids are displaying gifts that we want to nurture and develop, we should be sure not to stifle or discourage their talent.
So what are parents to do if they are concerned about doing what is best for their children and for their families? Do they limit the hyperfocus that is interfering with their family’s lives or do they allow their child to engage in their obsession as much as they wish?
To learn the answer, click here to read the next page. We’ll continue our discussion of hyperfocus on special interests, and talk about how we as parents and caregivers might deal with it when our kids are intensely focused on one thing.
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