Ask Bob: Volume 2

ask_bob2I really don’t know what to do. My son continues to stim off of traffic lights. What would this problem be related to? How do I fix it? His language has actually improved quite a bit over the last couple of years of home school, and his processing is in normal range. (6 conceptual objects, 7 or 8 auditory digits, 7 or 8 visual digits) We went to an amusement park today, and as we sat at the picnic table, all he wanted to do was look at the traffic (even though he was sitting by friends). When I was able to engage him with conversation, he was appropriate, asking me what my favorite ride was. But once the conversation ended, he was back to looking at traffic. Every time we drive in the car, he obsesses over looking at the traffic lights (even with pinholes on). What can I do?

(14-yr-old son with high functioning autism)


Dear Natalie,

At your son’s level of function, the things he perseverates on are not really still DSAB (Debilitating Sensory Addictive Behaviors), or “stims,” per se. These behaviors probably had a sensory origination but now are likely more of an unusual interest. At this point his interest in traffic lights is not a sensory problem, and if he can be distracted and can direct his attention to other things, it probably is no longer really addictive either.

The concern at this stage is more that it is inappropriate and might stigmatize him or make him appear “weird”. I would suggest that you continue to assist him in expanding and varying his interests. This will help him have more appropriate topics to discuss with friends and family.

On a practical level, you can make a list of age-appropriate and edifying subjects/topics for him to research. As the world around him becomes more interesting, traffic lights should become less interesting – particularly if he understands how “odd” it can look to others.

Ideally, you’d like him to develop the awareness and capacity to self-regulate in this area, but you also don’t want to hyper-focus on it so he considers it a defining characteristic instead of merely an annoying habit. At present, continue to calmly redirect his attention away from the traffic lights with meaningful conversations. Also continue to work on improving his auditory and visual processing, which will help him develop higher levels of thinking, speaking, and relating with the world.

Thanks for the question.


NACD Newsletter, Volume 1 Issue 5, 2008 ©NACD

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