Obsessions

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

Benefits 

  • 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.

Concerns

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.

For more information on PDA please visit The PDA Society and The PDA Resource

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About janesherwin

I am the parent of a child diagnosed with Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome. My hopes and aims are to raise awareness of this complex Autism Spectrum Condition presentation.
This entry was posted in 3. Strategies, Understanding, Resources, Discussion and More, Obsessions, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Obsessions

  1. Khat says:

    This is so well-written and describes my child, even down to the “buying when stressed” method she uses. She relieves anxiety by wanting a ‘blind bag”, even while in the midst of a stressful situation asking to go to a store to get the item she wants. It’s obvious and difficult to stop. Thank you so much for this enlightening article!

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  2. Kay says:

    Wow very insightful, was great cuz was looking for some info regarding people obsessions and was like you was talking bout my son, and go further down with the shopping is me I have never understood why I do it, it causes probs with my partner he gets really frustrated especially when I don’t use what I have begged for lol hopefully will these new strats will help thanks so much

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    • janesherwin says:

      Hi Kay, I’m so pleased the post has been helpful and the best of luck in reducing your spending. Just try to think when the urge strikes, what is the underlying cause for the need to spend. It will often be an anxiety related issue or the need to fill a hole if you have been upset or are feeling low. If you try to solve this by alternative means, rather than spending, then this may help, and also have longer lasting benefits.

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  3. Tanya Bowes says:

    oh my word!!! This is my 5 year old son, diagnosed with aspergers. I have been homeschooling him now for 5 months and so started to cope and assist him to cope in these ways you suggest but it was only this last weekend that I realised I think he has PDA. He is obsessed with surprise eggs that he sees on YOUTUBE which he is also obsessed with. The YouTube presentations drive me nuts but they calm him. he wants to buy these eggs but I just say they are only found in America, which is mostly true as we live in South Africa. Or he tells me to say “if we find them” which works for me too.

    But how do we prepare them for adulthood?

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    • janesherwin says:

      Hi Tanya, I understand how worrying it can be to contemplate adulthood and what the future has in store for our children. However, the best advice I can offer at this stage is to just think about the here and now. Concentrate on getting the right strategies in place, give time for them to really make any tangible differences, allow for maturing years and just try to deal with the different development stages as they occur. This way it can help us to stay grounded and not get overloaded with too many if, what’s and maybe’s. At the age of nearly 15 my daughter is adapting to life outside of the home quite well and has also reintegrated into an alternative type of schooling. It hasn’t been plain sailing and there have been many ups and downs but we are making steady progress. The PDA Society do offer some insight in adults with PDA if this may be helpful to put your mind at rest for the short term. However, I would once again stress to try to focus on the here and now. The future will take care of itself if the correct support is supplied while your son is young, which is what you are currently doing and so you have every reason to be hopeful regarding his future. https://www.pdasociety.org.uk/adult-life/Life-with-PDA

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  4. Ruth says:

    Dear Jane: Looking for information about PDA I found your page. I am just strugling so much with my 8 year old son. They say he cannot be autistic because he is only rigid but very social to be autistic, and he has so many obsessions but they do not pay attention to them and the obssesions drive me crazy really. I can see myself identify in your words so much, as he has obsessions with buying, specially control remote cars than afterwards he leaves them without any use in a corner, then he also has mealtdowns if we do not buy them, and he is obsessed with youtube videos of other young people playing minecraft, really obsessed with that!, and cannot take the cell phone without a problem… the tv is anotherone, but hopefully we do not have it at home, the soccer ball well he uses all the time at home against the walls everywhere…. but it is less obsessed with that… persons not so much but now he is rejecting the nanny that took care of him since he was a baby because she lied to him once or twice and promise him to give him a little car and never gave it to him. What do you do when the obsession for buying things do not go away? I can not afford to buy control remote cars all weeks, I try to pospone it, but it´s like a radio in my ear everyday! drives me nuts!!! thank you.Ruth

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    • janesherwin says:

      Hi Ruth, I don’t think the obsessions ever really go away completely and other than what I have offered in the obsession post I can’t really think of any further advice such as planning when one can be afforded and places the date to buy on a calendar. Really getting to bottom of obsessions comes with reducing the anxiety to such a degree that the need for comfort from buying begins to subside. If you think about it many obsessive conditions are often underpinned by anxiety or some other mental health issue e.g. eating disorders, self harm, obsessive spending, gaming, gambling, addictions etc. These apply equally to those on the spectrum and those not on the spectrum from all walks of life. Underpinning unresolved issues can vary greatly but the end result can be obsessive behaviour of some kind or another to either make the world feel safe and repetitive, to make an individual feel temporarily better with a quick high, to dull inner pain and emotions and so on. Hopefully the correct strategies at an early age will lessen the anxiety, improve confidence and eventually obsessions will be less so. As your son grows older, if this continues to be an issue, it may be possible for him to be helped by a psychologist who can help him resolve any inner demons underpinning the obsession. As long as the psychologist can adopt PDA strategies for the purposes of communication and relationship building, he/she may still be able to help by using the strategies usually used for individuals with obsessions and tweaking them so that they are PDA friendly. My daughter has only recently agreed to access therapy sessions from CAMHS (she is nearly 15) and so it may be a while before he is ready for any type of external intervention. Until then it is a case of trying to get by as best as you can by using a variety of strategies, which you need to mix up so they remain novel. I’m sorry I can’t be of any further help with this one, if it is any consolation it is a difficulty that appears to be very common for many families and it may be helpful to see if any parents in any of the facebook support groups can offer any further tips which they have found helpful. https://www.pdasociety.org.uk/resources/blogsandfacebookgroups

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