Fixating (also known as “perseverating”) is a common behavior exhibited by children who have Autism. Autistic children aren’t the only kids who fixate on certain toys/sounds/activities, but they definitely engage in it more often than their peers and for longer periods of time.
Often, when people hear about fixation being a part of Autism, they immediately wonder if their child is Autistic because there’s something they love intensely. It’s important to understand that this is super common in children, especially when they’re younger than five. Having pointed interests is different than perseverating.
For example, almost every toddler in first-world America has a favorite TV show they ask to watch over and over again until their parents’ brains want to explode. That’s normal for typical and atypical children alike. However, kids with Autism will either hang on to the show for years instead of months, or they’ll have bigger meltdowns when the show is turned off. They might even watch the same episode of the same show on repeat every day, instead of simply moving on to the next episode.
The same can be said for the way they fixate on activities, sensory stimulations, foods, or articles of clothing. Their interests are more intense, longer lasting, narrower, and (often) less socially acceptable.
I recently started spending a lot of time with a friend who has a daughter that will soon be evaluated to see if she’s on the spectrum. Both parents are teachers, and both parents believe she’s Autistic. After being around their family nearly everyday for the past month, I’d have to say I agree.
At first, I wondered why I hadn’t noticed her “quirks” before this point. I’ve been friends with them for several years. How hadn’t I noticed?
Well, she’s a girl, which means she’s naturally better at “masking” in public or around unfamiliar people. Her teachers often don’t notice any Autistic tendencies in her, and family friends can be around her without raising their eyebrows. However, when she’s in her safe home environment for an extended period of time, her Autistic mannerisms become significantly more apparent.
It’s not really that noticeable when a kid asks you the same question twice in a row. Adults usually chalk this up to the fact that they didn’t answer the child quickly enough, or that the child being impatient. However, if a kid were you the same question eight times in a row, you’d probably start to think something was different in that child’s brain. That level of fixation on a question is abnormal.
That’s the difference between my friend’s daughter when she’s at school versus when she’s at home. At school, it’s twice. At home, it’s over and over and over again until she falls asleep.
For example, a few nights ago, she painted her fingernails. Once they were done, she came up to show me, saying, “Whitney, look! I did my nails!” I gave her the affirmation she was seeking, and then she left.
A few minutes later, she came back over.
“Whitney, look! I did my nails!”
Since I’ve been more acutely aware of her fixation lately, I said, “You showed me, remember? I love them!”
She was happy with my response, but still came up to me three or four more times to say the exact same thing. She was perseverating on the feeling of excitement she had when her nails had been finished.
I’ve also seen her fixate on a certain word and how it is spoken. She’ll hear someone say a word (recently, it was “popcorn”), and then she’ll repeat it in that same inflection, over and over and over, until one of her parents asks her to stop. And then she usually continues to do it anyway, just at a lower volume.
She picks at scabs obsessively. She twirls her hair. She writes number sequences over and over on paper until there’s no paper left. She uses her leisure time to make Google searches about the cost of things, and then she remembers the exact price forever.
And when she finds something she wants to buy…. whew. She is going to research about it, talk about it, read about it, and ask everyone else if they want the same item until she finds something new to fixate on.
When she’s at school, these behaviors are muffled because of her desire to fit in. However, at home, they’re obsessive and over the top. That’s the difference between a kid who likes certain things and a kid who is fixating because of Autism.
They become so obsessive about it that they feel like they’ll explode if they don’t talk about the thing they’re fixated on.
It’s more intense, more frequent, and more uncomfortable for the people around them.