Just like other individuals on the spectrum, those fitting the PDA profile may also have obsessions with varying things. When my daughter was younger these obsessions would be mainly focused on people. She would either obsessively like someone or obsessively hate someone, even people that had actually done nothing to warrant this hatred. Now that she is older, and far less socially exposed, the obsessions tend to revolve around the need to purchase something, fictional characters, the need to watch back to back episodes of a certain show, reading book after book and compulsively eating.
Many may feel that obsessions may be damaging and need to be nipped in the bud. However, I prefer to take a wider view of the situation. Some obsessions can be concerning but others may be deeply fulfilling and educational for the individual. Obsessions can be a wonderful way of someone becoming an expert in any given topic or area. But, when obsessions consume the individual at the expense of all else it can be concerning. Rather than actively nipping the obsession in the bud or imposing a ban I prefer to try to gently tempt my daughter out of the obsession. My objective is never to remove the obsession but simply to try to restore some semblance of balance, no matter how small that may be.
Obsessions with People
I wonder if the obsessions with certain people all stems from anxiety and the need to feel safe. We all have different personalities, different senses of humour, different expectations in others and varying levels of patience. For a child with difficulties with social interaction and communication this must be extremely anxiety provoking and difficult to navigate.
Therefore, does finding one person who appears to provoke less anxiety, in the individual with PDA, serve as the ultimate ‘social’ comfort blanket for the individual with PDA. Is this where the obsession stems from, the need to feel safe with someone who the individual with PDA finds predictable and accommodating? Does the deep need for close one to one interaction with this chosen person cause a hatred, stemming from fear, towards those who may threaten this dynamic? This scenario may happen at school with a peer or within the home with one parent being favoured and all other family members, including the other parent, being ostracised.
We indulged my daughter’s obsession with me because I was the chosen one. But we simultaneously and indirectly also tried to solve the issue. Gradually and over time we were able to slowly introduce grandparent’s into the mix and she began to spend more time with her dad. Time spent with others would be short and under her control but as she began to feel safe with other family members and they also became predictable to her this time increased and became more of a flexible arrangement.
It was also useful if other family members could bring their own unique and appealing qualities to the table, preferably qualities that I didn’t possess, because this would encourage engagement. Eventually we all began to fit into our own little slots. I was for arts, crafts, taking care of her daily needs and emotional heart to hearts. Dad was for computer games, Xbox, fun and humour. Grandad was fun to go fishing with and to the cinema. Grandma would take her to the theatre and make salt dough with her. I could go on but hopefully you get the picture.
I think that this philosophy could be replicated in all areas of social activity. Start with a one to one, when confident and trust is in place gradually and slowly begin to introduce more people into the mix.
Obsessions with activities and screen time
Below is a short list of some of the obsessions that my daughter engages in.
- Colouring in picture after picture after picture day and night
- Reading book, after book, after book day and night
- Watching back to back You Tube videos of other people playing Minecraft day and night
- Watching back to back episodes of a TV Series day and night
- Playing Minecraft day and night
- Making clay figures day and night
- Making dresses for Barbie day and night
I tend to have a really relaxed view over obsessions and I have actually found all of them, in one way or another, to be very beneficial. Also, facilitating these obsessions has been made easier by home educating her following a philosophy of radical unschooling. Please note that this may not be the preferred or indeed correct approach for all children with PDA. It was simply the approach that worked best for us.
For more information discussing the positive and the negatives of screen time please visit this informative article by the National Autistic Society National Autistic Society – Technology
- They keep her calm, relaxed and lower her anxiety levels.
- They offer a safe retreat and haven when life becomes too much.
- She is engaged and focused which reduces boredom
- TV has taught her many social skills and vastly enhanced her general knowledge
- Playing computer games and surfing the net has taught her to read and write. It has also proved to be very educational on many levels.
- This has led to her being able to thoroughly enjoy reading books.
- Her creative and artistic flair has been able to run free.
Usually we see a familiar pattern where periods of obsessions eventually come to an end, followed by periods where my daughter re engages with others. However, it can be concerning for any parent when these obsessions / interests appear to take over your child’s whole life and you wonder if they will ever reappear from their own little cocoon.
During these periods I may try to gently tempt my child into engaging with some, more social, activities. I may leave interesting items around the house to prompt interest and engagement with me E.G. a cake recipe, a new arts and craft set or a leaflet about a day out. I may gently tell her that I am concerned about her, that I love her and that I miss her. I may then ask if we could do something lovely together that we would both enjoy. Thankfully during periods of concern this tactic can usually be very effective.
Obsessions with purchasing items
As with other obsessions, the obsession to spend and acquire things also appears to stem from anxiety and are perhaps, for the individual with PDA, a coping mechanism to reduce internal angst. When the need to purchase an item arises it may appear to consume the individual. I have actually witnessed, not being able to get the item involved actually induce a full on panic attack.
I have also noticed that spending sprees are more likely when something unrelated has triggered a spike in anxiety. Once the item is purchased, anxiety appears to subside and the item is often cast aside never to be used again. So did the individual really need the item out of personal desire or was it merely a means to self soothe? Perhaps it can be a mix of both or on some occasions it may be out of personal desire and on others it may be as a means to self soothe.
Either way, unlimited spending is unlikely to be either possible or helpful for the individual with PDA in the long term. Simply saying no, standing firm and enduring the meltdown may be some parents preferred action. This may work with some individuals but what if, as is the case in my household, this response does not reap any positive long term benefits and the cycle merely continues to go on.
These are the strategies that we have employed.
Short term strategies
- Gauge how high anxiety is and how strong the urge is on each individual occasion.
- If anxiety is at critical levels and we can afford the item we may purchase it for the short term benefit.
- If anxiety is at critical levels but we can’t afford the item we will try to appease our child by saying that we can’t afford it now but we will save up for it. We will give her an estimated time that this may take in order to give her a feeling of certainty. We may put an expected date on a calendar in order to give her visual clarification.
- If anxiety is at critical levels but we can’t afford the item we may try to negotiate and agree on a more affordable item.
- If anxiety is not at a critical level we may still purchase the item if the item is inexpensive.
- If anxiety is not at a critical level we may use this as an opportunity to try to help her to cope with not having something so that she can learn to self regulate.
- If anxiety is not at a critical level we may try to delay purchasing the item by saying we will get it in a few days or weeks. Again this is to try to help her to self regulate during the period of waiting.
- We often find that by delaying the purchase but promising it at a confirmed later date with visual clarification can be beneficial. Anxiety may drop and the desire for the item often subsides in the interim resulting in us not having to purchase it at all.
- Sometimes distracting her and keeping her focused on something else, a task or a project may help the desire for any particular item to be pushed further back into her mind, rather than staying at the forefront.
Long term strategies
- Our daughter now has her own bank account and access to internet banking. All of her Christmas, Birthday and monthly pocket money are placed in her account.
- Anything that she purchases, apart from treats that we agree to pay for, either on line or in shops is paid for from her own account. The hope is that this will help her to actually experience that money can run out and that purchases need to be balanced against available finance.
- We have been selling many of her old items at car boot sales in order for her to see how she may be able to generate her own money, rather than it always been readily given to her.
While the combination of these strategies have not completely solved the issue it is generally much, much better. Our daughter is now far more conscious of money and is now able to make choices about what she would like without having to purchase the whole shop!
Obsessions with eating
As with the other obsessions this also appears to be intrinsically linked with my daughter’s emotions. When she is happy, bored, sad, anxious or excited she eats. In order to prevent her from becoming very overweight we stock the cupboards with nibbles that shouldn’t pile on the pounds. At her own request, I stopped buying chocolate and sugary snacks. We are also very lucky that she does like fruit. So the fridge is full of ready to eat chopped fruit, ham, chicken, low fat rice pots and so on. This way if she feels the urge to munch she can usually find something to settle the craving that is a little more on the healthy side.
My daughter’s obsessions increased inline with violent outbursts and challenging behaviour decreasing. Therefore, if handled and managed correctly I see them as a self management tool that she uses in order to balance her internal emotions. However, it is important for us to monitor and manage obsessions carefully and delicately so that they don’t develop into a deeper problem.