Let’s try to paint the picture. Your child watches “The Land Before Time”, a classic movie for children with different species of dinosaurs as characters. He or she becomes fixated on dinosaurs and asks you questions about it. You may have decided to buy your child dinosaur books instead. He or she reads it non-stop. All week long, your child could only talk about dinosaurs and still asks plenty of questions. You may get to a point of being tired of listening to this topic. You may even start to get irritated by your child’s curiosity.
It’s not that he or she won’t stop. It might be that he or she doesn’t know how to stop. Your child is not even aware of this fixation. This behavior is not a conscious response.
We call this behavior of “getting stuck” as perseverating on specific topics. Your child is trapped in a loop of thoughts, emotions and ideas and he or she doesn’t know how to stop.
Children with ASD tend to “get stuck” when they struggle with:
- Executive Function. This includes skills on organization, managing emotions, paying attention and keeping track or remembering things
- Impulse control. A child diagnosed with ASD could be struggling with stopping his or her impulsive reaction once these have started.
- Shifting attention. There may be an inability to have flexible thoughts. Once a child diagnosed with ASD decides on an idea, he or she may not have the skill to change this thought or idea. Struggling with shifting of attention may also be because of a child’s hyper focus on a topic or feeling.
- Processing information. A child diagnosed with ASD may have difficulty with learning appropriate social cues. He or she may have a slower or different processing system which makes it harder for him or her to understand the information or topic at hand. This could even be related to a child’s ability to make decisions accurately and appropriately.
Your child could be perseverating as a coping mechanism to an overwhelming emotion and/or experience. Those with sensory processing issues could be experiencing perseverating on specific topics or feelings as a sign of sensory overload. This makes it more difficult to manage because it can even eventually lead to a meltdown.
Here are some general guidelines in managing your child when he or she “gets stuck”.
- Communicate effectively with your child. Tell him or her of such behavior. Describe the instances when he or she has not fixated on something and when he or she is already stuck. Point out the differences and similarities of these instances. This is for your child to get a clear picture of how he or she has been behaving differently. Explain, as well, how this behavior can cause problems.
- Empathize with your child and explain to them that mistakes are inevitable. Tell your own fair share of stories about mistakes and how you overcame these. You can empathize with your child and calm them down in a way you deem to be more effective for him or her.
- Once you have established that this is a problematic behavior, you and your child must agree on a “stuck signal”. This will be used when your child has become stuck in a loop again. This may be a simple gesture of raising both hands or simply asking your child “don’t you think you’re getting stuck again?” This will help your child in realizing that he or she may be perseverating again.
- Revisit the instances of your child’s getting stuck behavior. Monitor the trigger points, the extends of damages (if applicable) and the probable harms if not managed properly. This will help your child reflect on past incidents.
It is important to teach your child what to do when you tell him or her that they are getting stuck again. Know that when your child is behaving this way, he or she could be in denial of this occurrence. Find a way, a signal or a phrase that could take over during an episode of this behavior to keep your child from asking more questions, fixating on feelings or worrying about different things. Teach your child coping skills and flexible-thinking abilities.
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