Life with Autism: When is something more than an interest? When is it an obsession?

I’m sure every parent when asked the question ‘what is your child obsessed with?’ Can think of something their child loves above everything else. But when does a ‘favourite’ cross the line into obsession?

I have researched into obsessions and the link to Autism. I wanted to know a bit about what classes an obsession and why many autistic children have them. I found some great information on the National Autistic Society page. The basic markers for an obsession are:

  • Becomes distressed if trying to resist obsession.
  • Unable to stop the behaviour/play by themselves.
  • The behaviour/play is impacting their learning.
  • If its limiting social skills/interactions/opportunities.
  • If its disrupting lives of those around the child.

J’s obsessions:

I have read that there is a bit of a debate of whether obsession is the right term. There are some who prefer it to be called a ‘special interest’. But when it comes to J and his love of Star Wars then I still think obsession IS the right word. He meets all the above markers.

Obsession and Autism often go hand in hand. Children (and many adults) who are autistic will have a particular focus which becomes a key part of their everyday life and way they process things. These can go through stages or they can be the same ‘thing’ for a long time.

J’s has been a progression…

Doors and cupboards (the mechanism and cause and effect of opening and shutting).

Leading to:

Vehicles where he can watch and create movement of the wheels.

Leading to:

Disney Cars where everything in the house was Lightning McQueen and we watch lol the Cars films religiously. J collected the charatcer Cars (the small die cast ones).

Leading to:

All small die cast vehicles where he could watch them move and see the little details. We brought him Star Wheels hot wheels which quickly became a favourite.

Which led us to:Star Wars.

Around Christmas J was looking through catalogues. He loves catalogues, flyers, junk mail etc. In one of the supermarket catalogues he saw a page of Star Wars toys. He would study the page for hours and ask what everything and who everyone was called. Soon he wanted to find Star Wars on YouTube (he uses YouTube Kids app). This then snowballed into the obsession we now face.

Everything is Star Wars based. From the second he wakes up he wants to play Star Wars. He will build ships from his duplo/Lego and sticklebricks. He will get his book or catalogue and name all the characters. He wants Star Wars on in the background on tv (with mummy and daddy carefully monitoring and fast forwarding parts not suitable for 3yr olds). It is incredibly hard to get J to do anything that is not Star Wars based (even nursery have the same difficulty). If there’s no Star Wars toys available he will find something random to become a space ship…a bit of paper, his finger, anything.  It has even got to the stage where J sleep talks about Star Wars. Honestly, he names all the characters whilst fast asleep!

Making the most of it

So this is J’s current obsession. His everything. It’s how he processes the world around him and deals with things. It’s a source of comfort as he is both in control and the subject matter doesn’t change. I can either try and fight it which would end in meltdowns or I can embrace it.

So, I create learning opportunities from it. We’ll build together and talk about shapes and positioning of pieces. It develops his fine manipulative skills and problem solving. We read books and talk about the characters and what is happening. This develops his literacy and communication. We learn the names of the different space craft and use new words such as engine, wings etc so build his vocabulary. When we are out in the woods we go on adventures trying to find Darth Vader. This develops imagination and gets him out into the physical world.

I downloaded Star Wars themed resources from Twinkl as the number cards to use with activities where we are counting out things. I also downloaded a Star Wars inspired reward chart to help him with behaviour and social skills. We also brought a Kylo Ren toothbrush so now J will happily brush his teeth whenever we ask.

Drawing the line

Obviously I do try and challenge him. I don’t want to feed in too much to the point where J never moves on. Like all his other fascinations this will pass or transfer one day. I have certain boundaries:

  • Star Wars on any screen stops by tea time.
  • Star Wars games and toys are put away once bedtime tv is on (I’ll distract with board games).
  • Use now and next board (having symbol of what I want him to do, followed by picture of Star Wars or choice so he can see it follows activity) to encourage playing something non-Star Wars for a little while.
  • Still buying non-Star Wars toys and activities so he can have access to other resources.
  • Spend time outdoors in the natural world (away from screens, toys and with space to run and use his body more).

The ‘why’ behind obsessions

From what I have read and when talking to parents there seems to be several reasons for obsessions.

  1. It gives a sense of order to the chaotic world. It gives the child something that they can control and have as a constant in a world which is regularly changing.

I often find that J will revert back to talking about Star Wars when we are somewhere new. I use this to our advantage as it means I have a way to calm and distract him when in a queue, when someone stressful like the supermarket or the dentist. An example of this is when he had a nosebleed the other day. I needed him to sit still so I could pinch his nose. But J wanted to play, didn’t like seeing the bleed on the tissue or me holding him. So I started to ask him about the characters. He soon went on a rant about a storyline of one of the films and I managed to stop the bleed (ish).

2. Simply put, it makes them happy. They enjoy the activity or the item or topic and so that’s how they choose to spend their time.

The smile on J’s face when he see’s something Star Wars related melts my heart. He is so genuinely happy and interested in all things Star Wars. Who am I to take this away from him? It’s not hurting anyone and as long as I am making sure he stills accessing other things and opportunities then why not! This costume was £5 from a for sale site. It’s the first time he’s worn a proper mask and costume. He took the mask off after the photo but stayed in the robe the rest of the day. He was ecstatic to be Kylo Ren.

3. It helps them to interact with others. Often children who are autistic don’t have the social skills to start conversations or to be part of a social situation. Having their obsession gives them something to talk about, something known.

We went to the park for a run around. J was playing by himself and had turned the fallen tree trunk into a space ship (I think it was the Millenium Falcon). He was happy in his own little world. It makes me feel a little sad when I watch other children in the playground playing games together, running and laughing. Then I see J by himself and I wonder if he feels lonely? Does he want to play with others? Well, another boy who was slightly older came to play and he was also making spaceships noises. J recognised this and the two played alongside each other (I wont say together because there was still that element of separated play). They may not have directly spoken to each other but they smiled, they followed each other to different equipment and tree trunks, and took cues from each other. They made spaceships noises and J was re-enacting parts from Star Wars. Then as quickly as it started they were back to their own play. It was wonderful to watch.

What others have said

One of the positive of being a parent to a child who is autistic is the community. I love to speak to other parents, and also to adults who are on the spectrum. It gives me a huge sense of wellbeing to know I’m not alone in this. I spent a lot of time feeling J is ‘different’. But when I ask other parents about their children and their experience I realise he isn’t different, not in the world of Autism. So, here what other bloggers have told me about their child and obsessions…

Jen: ‘My son used to be absolutely obsessed with bin lorries. He still is to some degree but as 12 he’s at school when they come here but in the holidays he can’t wait to see them again’  Just Average Jen

Leigh: ‘Obsessions are just a part of autism, as much as anything is (spectrum disorders are delightfully varied in presentation). Our son gets hooked on particular iPad apps or tv shows to the extent that he’ll script parts of it into his language. I think they are a healthy way for autistic kids to feel safe, comfortable and occupied’ Dad Geek

Becca: ‘My son has autism. He obsession is reptiles, mainly the Komodo dragon. He absorbs everything in relation to lizards and reptiles. We go to the zoo as often as we can just to stand watching the Komodo dragons while the rest of the family goes round to the other parts. I personally think it is good that he has this obsession… mainly because he seems to passionate about something and it’s the only time you see this passion. I can also interact with him, some what easily, as he actively wants to talk to you about the facts about different reptiles.’ A Mum Doing Her Best

So, whether they are frustrating, repetitive or seemingly random obsessions do have their place in the world of Autism. It creates a security system for the child and talking point. I’m interested to know how long this Star Wars obsession will stay with us and where it takes us.

I’d love to know your views and opinions on obsessions, whether your child is Autistic or not.  How do you support it? Do you try to stop it or move on? Let me know in the comments or FacebookInstagram or Twitter. I also have a dedicated board on ‘Autism’ on our Pinterest if you ever fancy an nosey.

Disclaimer: I am a Twinkl blogger and have been given a subscription in return for blog posts sharing our adventures. All opinions and writing are my own. {EDIT: I am no longer a Twinkl blogger but I’m still more than happy to recommend}

Find more about Star Wars in Our Star Wars Day post.

Spectrum Sunday

11 Comments Add yours

  1. The special interests in our house, currently on Number three Disney, Scooby Doo and Harry Lotter have all been unconnected so I loved hearing how J has transitioned through his x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      Ohh I one Disney so will join in that one 😉 it’s funny how J’s has been like a journey. I didn’t realise it until I was writing the blog post and was talking to hubby about it x


  2. I love how your’re using J’s ‘obsession’ for learning etc. In fact, the criterium that stated that an obsession is something that hinders learning, is probably something that can be questioned. MYbe it’s up to the educator to figure out a way to learn which incorporates the ‘obsession’? I do realise that it might not always be possible, but a lot of the time it probably is…? x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      Hi, thanks. I agree, education should be more child centered so the obsession can be channeled into learning x

      Liked by 1 person

  3. All things motorsport here. It’s great in some ways and not in others. Thanks for linking to #spectrumsunday

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      Yeah it’s helpful to be able to distract or get them to focus but not helpful when you need them to do something outside of the obsession haha x


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