This is a tough topic, even for parents who have been dealing with it for a long time. It still weighs heavily on me sometimes. When a person gets “stuck” thinking the same thoughts over and over again, it’s not a simple thing; it’s related to repetitive behaviors, impulse control, special interests, anxiety, and who knows what else. I know that there is no quick fix because it continues to be a challenge for many people even after years of working on it.
Obsessive thinking is worrisome for several reasons. First, it can drive you insane when your child LITERALLY perseverates (Persever8s) on something. It causes me a lot of stress when I think that my child may be bothering everyone around him with his thoughts and special interests. Second, repetitive thoughts sometimes cause our kids distress because they don’t always want the thoughts to encroach so heavily on their lives. They may want to think or talk about other topics, but can’t seem to get the intrusive thoughts out of their heads. Finally, I sometimes find myself worrying about how much he enjoys thinking about his special interests. It reminds me of the fears I experienced when he was little and I had to work very hard to get him to be “present” and not stuck on the thoughts that swirled around in his head.
So what do we do as parents? I think there are a few approaches we can take. First, we need to somehow “convince” our kids that not everyone is as interested in their favorite topics as they are. I truly believe that this comes as a big surprise. It never occurs to them that not everyone wants to know every fact and nuance about the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winners from the 1950s and 1960s. With my son, I have helped him better understand this by talking (A LOT) about the things that I enjoy. Soon after I begin discussing a “special interest” of mine, he quickly says, “all right, all right, I know what you mean.”
Second, social stories have always worked well with my son. Anything that’s visual works better than discussing things with him. He can refer back to them as often as he needs to help him better understand the message I’m trying to convey.
Third, pointing out concrete examples helps make an impression on him. “Do you see how annoyed Squidward gets when Sponge Bob goes on and on about how he likes his job? That is how I feel when you talk about dinosaurs all day long.” I always acknowledge that I understand how passionate he is about certain things, but that I’m not as interested and other people might not be, also.
Since all kids on the spectrum are different, I’m not sure there is one best way to deal with this. Simply knowing this bothers others isn’t enough to change the behavior because the compulsion to talk about it is so strong. When my son was younger, he repeatedly asked questions that he already knew the answer to. I understood that he was practicing talking, but this didn’t mean I could listen to it all day. I made him a visual that let him know when it was ok to ask silly questions, and when it was not. That way, he was given the opportunity to do what he was compelled to do and I got a break from time to time. As he got older, the visual changed to reflect his interests at the time. Thankfully, it worked just as well as the silly questions image I used when he was younger.
Over time, he has “figured out” (translation: he couldn’t take my badgering anymore) that his interests are not universal. I don’t want to stifle his enthusiasm, but I also don’t want him to alienate those around him. It’s a fine line that is almost impossible for kids on the spectrum to walk, but I think it is important to keep working on it. Once they begin to understand why this is important and practice new behaviors, it will help immensely with social interactions.