Monday, April 8, 2013

When Special Interests Are Not Healthy

Teaching our son that life is not only about his special interest has been a challenge over the years. As with most kids on the autism spectrum, there is usually something that consumes their little minds and it is generally difficult to pull them away. For our son, his interests helps him to be calm in stressful situations, to be able to decompress and relax. In a sense it is much like a security blanket. We started noticing a few years back that one of his special interests were taking over the real world and we had to make some adjustments.

One of his interests is Legos. He enjoys building and creating. He can spend hours playing with Legos. We really enjoy the fact that he enjoys them so much. Because it is using his imagination and it is generally a shared time with siblings, friends and family, this special interest is left uncapped. Another special interest is video games, his favorite is MineCraft. MineCraft is a game in which you mine things to create different combinations to build things. You can build about anything in the game and there is some programming involved also. This is where it was getting tricky for us. He could spend a whole day on the computer or iPod playing his game. He was completely engrossed in what he was doing and using his creativity, programming and building elaborate cities(before MineCraft, it was Lego StarWars games), but was having very little social interaction. We found that if he spent more than an hour of screen time that he would be more upset or agitated and could easily erupt into a meltdown, especially when it came time to get off of the game. My husband and I came to the realization that too much screen time was definitely not good for him. So, we sat our son down and had a talk with him and informed him of the decision mom and dad had made and why we made the decision(the why is very important to him). I'm not going to say that this was a smooth transition for him because as most know, change is not easy for anyone on the spectrum. There were some meltdowns, but we stuck to our plan and it has payed off.

We came up with a schedule of sorts for him of when he could have screen time and how much. In the mornings, we have always had a difficult time getting him up and ready for school, so if he gets up, dressed and has his teeth brushed and bed made, he can play on his iPod for about 10 minutes before leaving for school. It is up to him wether he gets to or not. If he doesn't get up on time or is slow about getting ready his time disappears. He has learned that he has to get ready quick if he wants his time in the morning (yes, he uses a timer to brush his teeth for two minutes). On school nights he gets 15 minutes of screen time and has to set the timer when he plays. When the timer goes off, he gets off. On the weekends he gets one hour each day of any combination of screen time(this does not include watching a movie as a family). At first we had to remind him to get off, but he has adjusted to this schedule and gets off when his time is up on his own, most of the time.

Some may ask why we would do this. We do this because we believe that he needs to learn that life is not about the games he plays. He needs to socialize and build relationships, especially since this is an area of difficulty with those that are on the spectrum. Without people in our lives we become lonely and unfulfilled, which could lead to depression. He will still focus on his interests in his playtime with his friends and sisters, pretending that he is Steve from MineCraft and assigning the others with MineCraft characters(if they'll let him) or talking at length about the game, but he is socializing and talking with friends and family. It's been a process and it is still a process for both him and us as parents. We keep learning right along with him, one step at a time. We are not perfect and make mistakes, but hopefully we learn from those moments and make the necessary adjustments and get back on track.

So, for those that feel overwhelmed with all of the "stuff" just remember that you are not alone! One thing we have learned is that we too need to be in community with others. Without God, our community of friends and family, all of the "stuff" can be overwhelming. I'm so thankful for the people in our lives!

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