Using Fixations to Motivate Children with Autism

“Ready, set, GO!”

For Andrew Shreve, a Carmel 6-year-old with autism who loves everything about cars, those three words were among the first he spoke a few months after turning two.

“Andrew’s thing has always been cars,” recalls mom Kathy Shreve, who says his love of cars was incorporated into his speech therapy. “It felt like play for him. It’s a big motivator.”

From cars to dinosaurs and cartoon characters to even ceiling fans, a child with autism often has a repetitive interest, also known as a fixation, that gives order to an often chaotic, confusing world. While parents were once advised to steer their children away from these fascinations, experts now advocate using a child’s passions to encourage learning and appropriate behavior at school and at home. “If you can find their fascinations or special interests, it can be a special way to reach them and make a connection,” says Cathy Pratt, Director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community

Using what works

Elements of a child’s area of interest can be built into almost anything, like lesson plans, craft projects, field trips and even daily chores.

For a child who loves trains, for example, counting the wheels or matching colors provides an early opportunity for learning. Parents can also grant access to the interest once the child has finished a necessary task, such as brushing teeth.

Breanne Hartley, a board certified behavior analyst and Clinical Director for Little Star Center, a nonprofit network of Applied Behavior Analysis centers and in-home programs, encourages parents to become invested in their child’s interests. “Go into that world with your child. If they like trains, start with parallel play, to see if the learner will accept someone else playing with the trains,” she says. “Then try interactive play, where mom pushes her son’s train and he pushes hers. Then drive the train into a play house or into a tower of blocks. It makes the other toys interesting and broadens the interest.”

Teaching socially acceptable expression

The key with fixations is to ensure that the child can express their interest in a useful, socially acceptable way, Hartley says. “It might be acceptable for a 3- or 4-year-old to be interested in trains, but when they’re 16 or 17, maybe it’s reading books about trains rather than playing with figurines.”

And while taking advantage of child’s interest can be a great help therapeutically, Pratt reminds parents to avoid pigeonholing their child into a certain life path based strictly on their area of fascination. While some interests may lead to a career, for example autism advocate Temple Grandin’s work in the livestock industry, others will just be hobbies. “I worked with a boy who loved dinosaurs, and his parents wanted him to become someone who researches dinosaurs. I’m just not sure how many realistic career options that presents,” she says.

Finding like-minded people

For those with interests that may be out of place in typical conversation, such as having an interest in ceiling fans or washer and dryers, parents can help by directing their child to a place where they can discuss the topic at length, such as dedicated Facebook groups or blogs.

“I had an interaction with a 24-year-old on the autism spectrum whose interest was ceiling fans. When my husband and I were thinking of getting a new fan, I asked him what he would recommend, and he was able to tell us exactly what we needed,” Hartley recalls. “It’s just a matter of connecting the individual with someone who is interested in what they’re interested in.”

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