Autistic Fixations – Obsessions in Children with Autism
Strategies to support children with autistic fixations
Cartoons, dinosaurs, vacuums, spiders, gardening, stuffed animals, legos, cats, sunglasses…magazines.
If your child is autistic, they probably have at least one interest in an activity, toy, device, or topic.
It’s true: almost everyone (neurotypical or neurodivergent) has likes and hobbies. However, when someone has autism, very concentrated interests are known as “fixations” or “obsessions.”
This article will compare positive and negative fixations, provide strategies to support children with autistic fixations, and examine the connection between fixations and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Table of contents
What are autistic fixations?
Autistic fixations are intense interests, attachments, or preoccupations with an object, topic, or activity. While some interests are healthy and beneficial, others can be harmful.
Fixations for autistic individuals are excessive, abnormally intense, and inflexible.
- While obsessions appear more in those with high-functioning autism, anyone on the spectrum can have special interests.
- A fixation can last for someone’s entire life, or they can cycle through different interests over time.
According to the DSM-5, a key diagnostic criterion for autism involves “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities” that are “abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).”
In other words, autistic fixations and cognitive inflexibility go hand-in-hand. While a neurotypical child can shift between activities quickly, a child with autism may become intensely fixated on one topic or activity for long periods.
For example: Marcus is autistic and spends most of his time studying coin history, researching penny facts, reading books, and adding to his collection. He can recite hundreds of facts about coins at a moment’s notice. He connects socially by discussing coins or showing people his collection.
Autistic fixations: beneficial versus harmful
Autistic interests can be negative or positive, depending on the person and the context.
Special interests can benefit children with autism because they:
- Provide structure and predictability. When incorporated into a routine, healthy fixations can give children a sense of control and independence. You can also reward your child by allowing them to spend time with a special interest.
- Act as social glue. People with autism have trouble communicating, especially without common interests. A hobby or collection gives autistic children a chance to connect with others in an area they feel comfortable with.
- Reduce anxiety. Special interests let autistic children feel safe in a familiar environment. Thinking about, playing with, or looking at a preferred object or topic can be a healthy coping mechanism in stressful situations.
- Prepare children for future careers. Some fixations prepare high-functioning autistic children for a career related to that interest. Autistic people can become successful if they pursue what they are innately interested in.
Obsessive interests can be unhealthy if someone pursues the wrong topics or activities.
Examples: hurting someone, following or stalking a person, collecting items that belong to other people, and more.
An unhealthy obsession:
- Limits social interactions. If a fixation socially isolates someone with autism, it is probably unhealthy.
- Disrupts life and routine. An unhealthy fixation gets in the way of attending school, eating, sleeping, or other essential activities.
- Places self or others in danger. A destructive fixation can lead someone into dangerous situations or harm. For example, someone with autism might fixate on a person, follow them around, or intrude on another person’s private life.
Strategies to support autistic fixations
Many autistic fixations are healthy, normal, and beneficial. However, monitoring these interests is vital to avoid negative consequences.
Here are some ways to promote positive special interests for a child with autism:
1. Set limits and provide structure
Children with autism thrive with visual schedules, strict routines, and structured play. Consider allotting particular time for a child to spend with a fixation. Then, they will know how to behave and balance interests with other activities.
It is a good idea to set clear expectations for special interest interaction. Try implementing prizes, rewards, and consequences when children interact positively (or negatively) with their special interest.
2. Replace negative fixations with positive ones
It is important to notice unhealthy fixations early (like obsessive friendships). The longer someone fixates on something, the harder it is to stop it. If an unhealthy obsession develops, replace it with a healthy habit like sensory play.
3. Connect fixations with life skills
Your child is learning life skills they will use as an independent adult (especially if they are high-functioning). Children should learn to delay gratification when interacting with a special interest to become functional adults.
Consider talking with your child about managing their fixations and using coping mechanisms to avoid panic attacks or meltdowns. Deep breathing, counting, and exercise are examples of a few positive replacements.
Additionally, notice if your child’s special interest can lead to a career in the future. Connect what they are learning now with future responsibilities or jobs.
4. Communicate to explore special interests
Ask your child questions about what they like and why they like it. This practice encourages openness surrounding fixations, boosts social communication, and reveals ways to support your child in developing interests.
5. Get help from professionals
If your child’s fixation harms them, consider getting help from a healthcare professional. Some therapists will use ABA therapy or other behavioral strategies to replace negative fixations with positive ones.
Autism obsessions list
People with autism can become interested in almost any object or topic. While it is not an all-inclusive list, here are common fixations that autistic people have:
|Objects or toys
|An autistic child might be interested in everyday items like toy cars, dolls, photographs, or watches.
|Science and technology
|Individuals on the spectrum can be passionate about video games, robotics, coding, and computers.
|It is common for autistic children to have exhaustive knowledge about historical figures, large wars, time periods in history, and ancient civilizations.
|A sports fixation might lead to collecting trading cards and memorizing stats about various sports like hockey, basketball, or football.
|Arts and crafts
|You might find someone with autism very interested in working with their hands: painting, knitting, woodworking, or building are regular fixations.
|A special interest can manifest in playing instruments, listening to music, or using computer programs to compose music.
|Science fiction and fantasy
|Many people on the spectrum are drawn to fantasy series or worlds. They can collect figures, read the series, watch related YouTube content, and more.
|Nature and animals
|A child with autism might be obsessed with lizards, weather, insects, or household pets.
|An interest in trains, planes, and other motorized vehicles is typical for those with ASD.
|Some autistic people memorize facts or numbers from a variety of topics. This could look like repeating license numbers or postal codes.
One autistic obsession that might concern a parent is an obsessive friendship (when a person becomes a special interest). If your child with autism becomes codependent on another person or overly emotional about someone, consider intervening to avoid adverse outcomes.
Comparing obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism
Autistic fixations and OCD are similar but not the same.
While the exact relationship between OCD and fixations is unknown, researchers believe there is a correlation between the two.
Here’s what the research says:
- According to one systematic review, about 17% of autistic individuals are also diagnosed with OCD.
- One study compared a high-functioning autism group with an obsessive-compulsive disorder group. They found that the “OCD group had higher obsessive-compulsive symptom severity ratings but up to 50% of the ASD group reported at least moderate levels of interference from their symptoms.”
Intrusive, repetitive obsessions and behaviors can negatively impact people with OCD and ASD. Additionally, ABA therapy is used to treat both OCD and unhealthy fixations in ASD.
OCD and ASD differ in numerous ways:
|Autism spectrum disorder
|OCD is characterized by unwanted thoughts, obsessions, and undesired repetitive actions.
|ASD is characterized by repetitive behaviors and challenges with social interactions and communication.
|People with OCD are often aware of their compulsions.
|People with autism are usually unaware that their interests are fixations.
|Obsessions are unhealthy, stemming from mental health issues or anxiety.
|Fixations can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the circumstances.
|OCD tends to develop over a person’s life because of life events.
|ASD is a developmental disability that a child is born with. Fixations may or may not come from anxiety.
While there is a correlation between OCD and ASD, they are not identical. If you’re questioning whether or not your autistic child is displaying signs of OCD, consider talking to a specialist or doctor who can help.
Frequently asked questions
Can autistic fixations change or evolve over time?
Yes, an autistic fixation can appear, disappear, or change over time. While some people with autism keep the same fixation their entire life, others acquire new special interests as they get older.
Do all people with autism have obsessions?
No, not all people with autism have obsessions or fixations. However, autistic obsessions are very common. Autism is characterized by inflexible, repetitive thought patterns which contribute to special interest development.
People with autism process information in repetitive ways that often lead to the development of fixations. When supported appropriately, these fixations can be a healthy and beneficial part of an autistic child’s life.