Parenting a child with autism means always being on-guard. The common sense social rules, such as don’t run into the street or don’t jump into the water, seem to come built in with typical kids, but have to be taught one-by-one with lots of repetition to our kids with autism. And then there are the obsessions. It seems nothing we do helps our children to control them, and as a parent it is so very hard to understand the motivation behind them. I have heard people with autism say that their brain just tells them to do certain things over and over until they do it. But, what if this wasn’t always the case? What if sometimes an obsession was actually a pursuit of understanding?
Years ago, my daughter with autism, Lizzie, was obsessed with the curbside storm drains in the neighborhood streets. She would go from drain to drain, lay down on her belly, peek inside the drain with a confused look on her face and then stand back up appearing completely unsatisfied. We would go on daily walks counting the drains around the neighborhood, and I would repeatedly share my limited knowledge on what they were.
When it rained, well…the excitement level was high in my house! We got our rain gear on and did what everyone normal family does during a torrential downpour…headed out to the nearest storm drain! I can only imagine the thoughts going through peoples’ minds when they passed by. There I was standing with my umbrella over a little girl wearing sassy pink polka-dotted boots and a princess dress, laying flat on her tummy in the street with an ear-to-ear grin as she watched the water rush down the drain.
This obsession went on for months, and I was baffled as what to do to help her get over it. In a last ditch effort, I decided to call the city and ask to speak to a “drain engineer.” As I poured my heart out to the receptionist telling her about my drain problem, and how we were consistently subjecting ourselves to thunderstorms, I was quite shocked to find out that “drain engineer” wasn’t even a real title. None the less, they directed me to someone who was able to help me.
All I asked for was a copy of some type of storm drain system map in hopes to explain things to Lizzie in a little more depth. Knowing she is very visual, I was anticipating this might finally save us from joining the 240,000 people a year who get struck by lightning. The drain man (with a way more complicated title than I can remember) did us one better. He told me he would love to come by our home and give us a drain lesson complete with our own laminated drain route for our neighborhood.
Upon his arrival, I warned him that he might not get a “feel good” reaction from Lizzie, and she might not appear to be listening. He patiently and kindly, in simple language, showed her how the drains in our neighborhood worked. Lizzie didn’t thank him, smile at him or even look at him for that matter, but I could see the wheels turning inside her head.
After the drain man left, Lizzie stared intently at the map for about an hour. Then all of the sudden, like a light bulb went off, she tossed the map on the floor and never showed interest in drains again! This was eye opening for me! The obsession ended the very moment the storm drains made sense to her.
Now each time it rains, instead of hustling around the house to find our rain gear, I am free to curl up in a chair with a blanket. It was comforting to realize that sometimes an obsession is really a quest to understand how the world works. The way Lizzie relentlessly pursued this knowledge will help her become successful in the future. And the next time an obsession began, I approached it in a very different way…thinking of how to help my daughter gain the knowledge she needed while admiring her tenacity.
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Julie Hornok is an award-winning author, inspirational speaker, and advocate for autism. She started the non-profit, United in Autism, to bring hope to autism moms through emotional support events. Her first book, United in Autism: Finding Strength Inside the Spectrum (foreword by Temple Grandin) is available at UnitedinAutism.com or Amazon. Join her United in Autism Facebook Community for daily support. UnitedinAutism.com