The first thing you’ll notice about my son is his love for doors.
He loves watching people open and close doors. Now that he is able to twist the doorknobs himself, he enjoys standing at a door to open and close it repeatedly.
Most people find it odd. Most therapists assume the need for intervention. Many silently wonder if we, the parents, reinforced the behavior by not putting a stop to it long ago.
This post is intended to illustrate how accepting a child’s ‘fixation”* is not a form of laziness on the part of the parent but a form of recognition. Further, I share how to look at “fixations” as passions instead and embrace them!
*Note: The term “fixation” is an antiquated term previously used in medical and clinical settings—often regarded as something that needed to be treated. This is no longer the case as neurodivergent and disabled self-advocates teach the use of “special interest” or “intense interest” instead. In this article, I continue to use the term “fixation” in quotation marks to draw emphasis to a commonly-used term with the indication that it’s not the best term.
What are “fixations?”
According to Dictionary.com, fixations are defined as “a preoccupation with one subject, issue, etc.; obsession”. The medical/therapeutic term for fixation is “to perseverate.” Neurodivergent and disabled children are known to have intense preoccupations as a means of self-soothing since the objects or repetitive behaviors are familiar to them.
Some types of “fixations”
- Oral (i.e., having a need to put things in the mouth)
- Visual (e.g., staring at lights or objects moving in a circular motion)
- Object (e.g., zippers)
- Topic (e.g., rockets)
- Behavioral (e.g., intentionally shaking leg)
When we first discovered that our son had a fascination for doors, I was excited because it indicated that he had a preference for something.
As a mother, I was thrilled that he was able to focus on one task, and as I teacher, I was ecstatic that he was able to generalize the skill of opening/closing (sometimes very complex types of knobs) to any door he encountered.
I didn’t see the “fixation” as a negative. I immediately saw the potential for this interest. While behavioral therapists want to eliminate the “obsession” to have the child conform to societal norms, I questioned its presence in my son’s mind in the first place.
- Why does he show a preference for doors? (He has control over the open/close pattern.)
- What does he find most fascinating in the open/close rhythm? (He loves to hear the door click shut. The cycle of open/shut isn’t complete without the click.)
- What is the danger in having him continue with the behavior? (So far, nothing. He’s very careful with the placement of his fingers.)
- Who does this fixation bother most? (Certainly not him, mostly everyone who doesn’t understand it.)
After much questioning and observation, I decided not to fight it. We let our son be who he is. I started using doors as motivators for therapy as well as for learning in the home setting.
“Unless it is self-injurious or dangerous to others, cultivate the child’s passion and use it to their benefit.”
An example of using a “fixation” for therapy
My son, who needs assistance to stand and walk, and who only stood on the sofa for a few seconds, was suddenly standing at the door for several minutes at a time.
These are the skills he acquired because we allowed him to enjoy doors:
- Standing strong on his own two legs while using one of my hands for support and the doorknob for additional balance (for an extended amount of time)
- Shifting weight from one leg to the other
- “Walking” across the hall to another door (and then, to another, and another) using my hands for support
- “Walking” from the swing set to the front gate in the summertime (because a gate is a door, too!)
- Stepping backward by pulling the door toward him (as opposed to away from him)
- Pulling the door shut with a secondary object hanging from the doorknob (at times he pulls the fabric bag hanging on the doorknob until the door shuts)
- Coordinating hands/arms with leg movements
- Controlling both the upper and lower body simultaneously
This is authentic physical therapy as it’s natural and familiar to him. I am excited to see that he has not only learned to twist a doorknob but that he consequently gained strength in his legs and arms. I am also seeing a difference in his ability to balance in standing.
An example of using a “fixation” as a motivator for learning
Because I know that my son loves doors, can you guess the types of toys I purchase for him? I try to look for toys that have hinges where he can open/close or flap up/flap down. While it might seem that I’m only encouraging the “obsession” to grow out of control, I’ve taken him away from doors and onto the floor or table where I lead him into different learning activities.
Some ways to use doors for extended learning:
- A varied “I Spy” game: stick visual cards on different doors and ask him to “go to cow” (and he walks from door to door looking for the cow card) this can be used with color, shape, ABC and number cards as he gets to that level
- As learning stations with different activities stuck on the door (ex: trace the straight line with his finger on door 1, trace the zig-zag line on door 2)
- Tape different parts of a story on different doors and walk to them to read them (simple/short text, or images only)
- Tape a bunch of sticky notes on a door with different letters and have him identify the first letter of his name
- Teach prepositions: behind, in front
- Teach verbs: open, close
- Teach adjectives: fast, slow, gently
- As a transition into another activity
“Fixations” are workable
From the outside, I can see how one might think that this kind of behavior needs to be stopped.
“It’s not typical for a child to swing open a door repeatedly—he’ll stand out.”
“He needs to be able to play with a variety of toys—we don’t want to encourage this.”
“We’ll have difficulty when we are in public places.”
Good news. My son is not typical.
While some might feel tempted to change a child’s behavior for fear of what others might think, I look at it as a tool. When we love something so much, we think about it often—we call it a passion.
How to hone a child’s passions
1- Acknowledge and accept. Recognize what the child’s passion is, and be OK with it. Don’t let it be a source of shame but a springboard for deeper learning instead.
2- Allow the child to play with the object or engage in the repetitive behavior before moving on to the next thing. Rather than fighting them, allow the child to enjoy their passion before moving on to a different task, such as reading.
3- Tap into the passion for learning. If the child is fascinated by balls, think about how to use balls in a variety of subject areas. This doesn’t mean that you need to only use balls, but use them as a means to generalize and eventually move away from the object/behavior to learn a new skill.
Some examples of using balls in academics:
- Counting, sorting, matching, and computing with balls
- Writing and reading sight words on the balls
- Spelling practice with letters on a ball
- Labelling the colors of balls
- Balls of all shapes, sizes, and textures in a sensory bin
- Tapping balls together as rhythm instruments in music
4- Get esoteric. Just for fun, look up the symbolism of the object the child is passionate about. For instance, when I looked up the symbolism of doors, I found references to a new challenge, transitions, an escape, and a passage away from the past and into the future.
Does a child in your life have a passion? Are you working to eliminate it, or are you embracing and nurturing it?
Let’s brainstorm together!