Most of our little ones on the autism spectrum have obsessions, or as I like to call them speed bumps. Why? Because in the moment, they can’t get past them. Some people prefer to use the terms interests or passions. I’m fine with any of the terms, as I don’t find obsessions to be a bad thing. Sometimes they’re fabulous and can help a child learn, be a huge source of motivation, and provide pure joy. Some familiar interests include Pokemon, Hot Wheels, Animals, and all the things on YouTube, such as room tours, or Lego builds.
But what do you do when an obsession is a safety hazard?
I’m not talking about self-harm, or violence, right now. I’m talking about obsessions that could be harmful, like cooking, skydiving, throwing rocks, whittling wood blocks (hey, it’s a sharp tool!), or perhaps candle burning. They’re not hurting anything or themselves, but the possibility is there.
While I’m all about teaching safety skills when it’s age appropriate, it can still be scary. And so with a candle burning obsession, those of us in my house have entered the world of fire safety.
What we’re covering:
- How to light a match
- How to put out a candle
- What materials catch on fire
- How fires jump
- How to put out kitchen fires
- Home fire safety
- Home fire drills
Neurotypical parents may scratch their heads thinking this is pretty basic, but they don’t understand true autism obsessions. A typical teenager may like a candle, or even be passionate about candles, wanting to burn a candle during dinner, or maybe while they do their homework for the pleasing scent, and then they go about their lives.
The difference in our home is a teenager that talks about candles incessantly. Changes their voicemail to say they’re busy burning candles. Makes their social media pictures of candles. Watches videos on YouTube for hours on candles. Asks everyone they come in contact with for a candle. Wants to burn candles ALL DAY AND NIGHT. Begs for more candles. Lines up candles. Collects matchbooks from restaurants to light candles. Wants to light the candles and blow them out – 100 TIMES! Can’t stop thinking about candles. Do you see what I mean? There’s a difference.
So, here are some steps we follow and rules we have created. I hope this helps anyone who is going to something similar in regards to obsessions and safety.
7 Rules for When an Obsession is a Safety Hazard
1. Never leave them alone. Its hard on us, but it’s a necessary fact in our world. When my son got a few minutes alone, he lit a candle. While thankfully everything was okay, what if it wasn’t? What if he burned the house down? He’s extremely easily distracted and will go outside and leave the stove on. So rule number 1, is he can never be left alone during this obsession period. Yes, it sucks for all involved.
2. Teach safety. In our case, fire safety. If your child’s obsession is something else, such as cooking. Teach kitchen safety with knives and stove tops, etc. Make the safety lessons about what your child is obsessed with. Thank goodness YouTube has pretty much everything. But teach, and teach again, and teach some more. And have them teach you back to make sure they’re understanding the lessons.
3. Purchase any safety supplies needed. I ordered a fire ladder for the second floor from amazon and showed my son how to use it. We also made a home fire drill plan to evacuate, which was important anyways. Since he has panic attacks, if there was a fire, it would go out the window, but still, I’m a planner. Are they cooking? Purchase a fire extinguisher for the kitchen. Are they welding? Purchase safety goggles. You get the idea.
4. Set rules and guidelines. We were very strict about the candle burning in our home. It is only allowed with an adult, and only at specific times of the day. They learn that you’re not messing around when there were huge consequences set up for any breaking of the rules. In fact, on the day he lit the candles without us in the room, I threw out all of the candles. Epic meltdown, but it was a learning day. Set boundaries. Make a chart. Or visual schedule. Do what your child will understand, but make sure there are rules in place and structure. Keep the obsession contained.
5. Focus on the positive if possible. I would congratulate my child on his ability to use a match to light the candle. This was a big deal for him and fostered a great deal of independence. He would light the match with such bravado. As a highly nervous person, this was a BIG deal for him, so we celebrated it. If your child is learning archery, celebrate any breakthroughs. Listen to their stories of archery history. Watch videos with them on perfecting your archery stance. Use the obsession as a time for you two to bond some more.
6. Try not to give it too much attention. I couldn’t ignore the candle obsession, but I acted like it didn’t bother me. It DID. Inside I was a wreck, terrified he was turning into a pyromaniac. We live in fire zone, so I had nightmares that he would start a fire in the surrounding canyons. But I knew if I fed him my fears, the obsession would last longer. If I refused to let him light candles on occasion, it would grow and fester inside him till he burst. Yes, as if an autism parent’s day isn’t stressful enough, add actor to your list of skills! I had to keep myself in check and under control.
7. Encourage a new obsession. Phew! The second my son switched to a new obsession, I ran with it. Once they show an interest in anything else, do whatever you have to do to move away from the danger zone. I would have charged a pony on my credit card if he’d switched to equestrian riding. Anything other than the candles. Your child or loved one probably has a pattern on how long an obsession will last. I’ve found that the older my son gets, the quicker the obsessions phases are. And since technology is so popular, perhaps that new iPad is looking better and better.
What do you do when autism obsessions are safety hazards? I’d love to hear any tips or advice in the comments.
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