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Justin 33 examples of

Justin 33 examples of the way in which understanding the meaning or function of a behavior modifies our approach to dealing with it. A parent’s job is made more difficult, unfortunately, by the fact that it’s not always easy to trace behavior back to the compulsion to resist change. In fact, it’s not always clear that the person is struggling with anxiety, as aggression can often be the presenting problem. As to restricted interests, there is an almost infinite variety of topics or objects that catch a child’s attention and may become a fascination, even a preoccupation. The common element is that the preoccupations all lack social–emotional content—stamps, but not the personality of the person depicted on the stamp; flags, but not the people who live in that country or its history; sports statistics, but not the dynamics of team play, and so on. The content of the preoccupation may also change with the child’s development. In infancy, the interests are often highly perceptual and include visual stimuli such as the TV, spinning toys, flashing lights, letters or numbers, textures such as hair and silk gowns, or sounds such as songs, music, and the like. As the child matures, the topics may become more conceptual in some ways, but they remain concrete: action figures, robots, flags of the world, astronomy, bus time tables, medieval knights, subways, dates in history. But some aspects of the preoccupation never change. The hobbies and interests are always pursued with unusual intensity and most often alone. Their primary purpose is not a means of facilitating social interaction. Typical children may develop unusual interests too, but these are often a way of meeting other children and making friends. Indeed, typical children are usually very sensitive to peer influences in their choice of play materials and interests (a fact that toy manufacturers are well aware of). For the most part, children with ASD do not care what other children think about their interests and pursue them with or without other people. If others join in, so much the better, but only if the activity becomes more fun that way. Watching a ball fly through the air may be more fun if Mom or Dad throws it back. Two people playing a computer game may be more fun than one. The fact that cooperative play is usually motivated in this limited way does not mean, however, that a parent cannot exploit common interests between a child with ASD and another to help the child with ASD develop social skills and relationships. As described in Chapter 7, deep and meaningful social relationships may blossom when two people with ASD have similar interests. Why some children love letters or numbers, why others like Justin

34 A MIND APART love sounds, and why still others become fascinated with esoteric subjects such as bones of the hand is an enigma. On occasion, another family member has a similar interest. I remember one boy who was obsessed with trains and insisted that his parents take him out for a drive every day to watch the 4:15 train pass over the bridge near his house. If they refused, he would become inconsolable. I asked his parents if they had any idea where this interest came from. They rather sheepishly informed me that the father was a steam engine enthusiast and had several model trains in the basement. The boy who was fascinated with bones in the hand and could recite the names of all the bones by the time he was four years old was the son of a chiropractor. Presumably he came across one of his father’s books at a critical time in brain development and became hooked as a consequence. But this coincidence of interests is unusual, and for the most part, the reason a child has one interest and not another remains a mystery. The mystery can be viewed as charming, as was Stephen’s fascination with wasps to his parents (see Chapter 1), or it can cause great frustration. Some parents, naturally, have a hard time tolerating such eccentricities. After all, it can be exhausting to go to the extreme lengths that some parents and teachers have to go to in order to head off the difficult and aggressive behavior, particularly in young children, that often results when children are interrupted in the middle of their focused pursuits. But the reaction of parents and other adults to these interests is important. It may be very difficult to shrug off comments by wellmeaning adults that point out how cute or how different their child is from other children—“He sure loves to line up trains all over your rec room floor. I wonder if he will grow up to be a train engineer?”—when you’re trying to prevent such behaviors from occurring in the first place. But given the pleasure that these activities induce in children with ASD, such restriction will often only produce more difficult and disruptive behavior as a means of protest. As Heather’s mother, Janice, found out, efforts to pull a child with ASD away from her peculiar interest to do schoolwork or chores or to play with the kids in the neighborhood can be futile. Chapter 2 describes how Janice and Heather’s teacher found a way to capitalize on Heather’s interests to increase her attention to the activities that developing children need to mature. Some interests, admittedly, are dangerous. One little boy was so fascinated with the exhaust pipes of cars that when a car was idling on the street or in a parking lot he would bend down and watch the exhaust escape. Fortunately, it’s more common for a child’s intense interest to be

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