For Parents · Glossary · Techniques

Obsessions and fixations: getting stuck and unstuck

If you are the parent of a child with autism or any other developmental diagnosis, you will probably have identified some “restricted interests”  your child is drawn to. Sometimes, these areas of interest can lead to elite academic opportunities, impressive works of art, or gateways to new social connections. Other times, these intense fixations don’t seem to lead anywhere. They can leave a family stuck, sometimes literally.

What’s a family to do when their son won’t move because he wants to stand in front of the store and watch the automatic doors open and close? What’s a family to do when their daughter melts down when she is not the one to press the elevator button? What about when a child insists on pressing every available button, including the ones on the nearby crosswalk and the pin pad at the store?

In these situations, some parents find themselves faced with a miserable choice: allow the child to press that button or watch that door over and over again, or stand there in the community as the child breaks down into tears, knowing that the rest of the day will be ruined as a result.


What other options are there? Consequences are the most commonly recommended answer, but they don’t seem to fit here. Punishments seem pretty pointless, as everyone is already miserable. Rewards are impossible, because there’s no positive behaviour to encourage. The screaming and hitting isn’t too conducive to a great learning environment, so all our helpful messages seem go unnoticed. When a family has tried toughing it out, and a family has tried retreating, what’s left? The answer lies in the ABC of applied behaviour analysis.

When it comes to figuring out a particular behaviour, the most important ingredients are

A: Antecedent. What happened before?

B: Behaviour. What was the behaviour?

C: Consequence. What happened afterwards?

If the behaviour isn’t changing, and the consequences are hard to change, the best place to start is with the antecedent. Start teaching a set of behaviours before you walk into that stressful situation.

Here’s the magic of the antecedent strategy:

  • You can teach when you and your child are both calm
  • You can teach whenever it’s convenient for you
  • You can teach the lesson as many times as you want
  • You can change a hypothetical situation any way you want

An antecedent teaching strategy can be a playful, imaginative and relaxed way of presenting new skills. A behaviour analyst can help you plan

For example, if your child’s difficult behaviour tends to happen in an actual elevator, an antecedent intervention might include a cardboard box to demonstrate key skills and practice routines without having to worry about unpredictable events or unwanted attention from neighbours.

If your child does not know what to say when asked to apologize, an intervention would take place during playtime with a puppet or doll, when everyone is calm. A behaviour analyst can help you plan out the words you would like to teach, and take turns giving and receiving apologies in a relaxed environment.

Social stories are another great example of an antecedent intervention. They get the message across, and the best stories get read over and over again. You can buy books that discuss your problem, but I have found that it’s quick and effective to create customized social stories for clients, using their own pictures to keep them engaged.

Here’s an example of a strategy for preventing bedtime whining, and another one for helping with separation anxiety, both road tested by my own family.

If you would like your own individualized antecedent intervention, I’d love to help!

Let’s start the conversation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *