In the DSM-5 published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), one of the diagnostic criteria of autism is “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus”. Some people might term such fixated interests as “obsessions”. These can vary greatly. Some have a love for trains and train tracks, able to sit for a long time just watching videos of trains running on tracks. Others have a fondness for words, fonts, and characters. And of course, there are even more unique varieties of such “obsessions” out in the world.
In truth, such a fixation is not something that occurs only to children with autism. Many neurotypical children also develop interests or hobbies as they grow. Some of their passions can also be as intense as those we call “obsessions”. However, such intense fixations towards a subject is less common with neurotypical children than in children with autism. While some of these fixations may change over time, a number turn out to be life-long obsessions. Parents to autistic children often worry when they see this, because they believe it is abnormal for their children to be this focused on one thing. Funnily enough, I’m sure some neurotypical parents would be offering thankful prayers if their children would just stick to one thing, please.
The big question for most parents is: “Should I keep my child away from their fixations?”
I’m not entirely convinced they should. Here are a few reasons why I think so.
Being intensely focused on something is not “abnormal” in a negative way. It may be out of the norm in the sense that most people are unable to maintain long-term interest and focus on one thing or topic. People are curious creatures. We often like to try out new and interesting things. As a result, many of us hobby-hop; we invest in a camera in the first year of our university, learn to play a flute in the second year, and delve into whatever else we end up fancying some time again later. While there are a handful of people who would stick to a particular something for years on end, the norm is the general inability of an “average” person to sustain such intense long-term interests or focus. In this light, I would think that being “abnormal” in this aspect may not necessarily be a terrible thing.
As with anything, sticking with anything long enough means one gains greater skill, knowledge, and ability in their topic of interest. In the long-run, this may turn out to be a skill that benefits the child. It may become a source of livelihood; as with Carson Lester, who turned his love for pickles into a business; or Satoshi Tajiri, who had a fascination for bugs and later turned his interest into Pokemon. Their skill could also turn into a topic of interest they could discuss with their friends, and a key part of their self-identity. Furthermore, because each topic of interest likely has other related aspects, it could serve as a doorway into other subjects that would enrich the child’s knowledge of the world.
In addition, allowing a child their fixations may also serve to boost mental well-being. This idea is in line with information from the National Autistic Society, who mentioned, in reference to autistic children, that “the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their well-being and happiness.” Competence has always been regarded as one of two key aspects of self-esteem (Tafarodi & Swann, 1995). In some models of mental health, it is also considered as a crucial aspect of an individual. Thus, it is not too far a stretch to see how indulging in one’s fixations, thereby becoming an expert in it, might serve to boost feelings of competence and lead to greater mental well-being. I believe this is particularly important for children with special needs who live in a very challenging world. Knowing that they have a “special skill” could help to assure them of their own competence despite the many difficulties they face and give them greater confidence in tackling them.
Finally, these fixations provide relaxation and happiness for them. Everyone has different interests. Wherever possible, I believe we should not be interfering with these so long as they are not harmful to the child or others. Rather than stop the child from indulging in what they love, what parents may need to learn is how they can set boundaries. When the fixation is carried out in a way that is socially inappropriate or causes harm, we should be looking to help the child set boundaries, explore the interest in a safe way, as well as searching for potential alternatives that may broaden their scope of interests or shift their focus.
As adults and parents, rather than simply keeping our children away from what they love with little explanation, we need to learn to guide them in using their skills and interests in appropriate and functional ways. Regardless of whether a child is neurotypical or atypical, this aspect of parenting should not be any different.