If you ever visit us, the first thing you will notice about my son is his obsession with doors.
He loves watching people open and close doors. Now that he is able to twist the doorknobs himself, he enjoys standing at any door he finds and opening/closing 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 hone those fixations to the child’s benefit.
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 (ex: staring at lights or objects moving in a circular motion)
- Object (ex: zippers)
- Topic (ex: rockets)
- Behavioral (ex: intentionally shaking leg)
When we first discovered that our son had a fascination for doors, I was excited because it not only indicated that he showed a preference for something, but that he actually noticed that doors exist!
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 brain 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 strangers.)
After much questioning and observation, I decided not to fight it but to let it be what it is. Let him 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 obsession and use it to their benefit.”
An example using a fixation for therapy
My son, who needs assistance to stand and walk, and who only stood at 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 let him get a “fix” on his fixation:
- 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 summer-time (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
I consider this to be true physical therapy because it isn’t contrived but natural and familiar to him instead. 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 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, the truth is, I’ve taken him away from the doors and onto the floor or table where I lead him into different academic-type 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 (when he is developmentally ready)
- Teach prepositions: behind, in front
- Teach verbs: open, close
- Teach adjectives: fast, slow, gently
- As a transition into another activity (get his “fix”, then move on)
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 difficulties when we are in public places.
Good news. My son is not typical. He already stands out. We already have difficulties when we get out to public places. Fostering a fixation will not change any of those realities.
While some parents might feel tempted to change their child’s behavior for fear of what others might think, I look at it as a tool to work with to strengthen other skills.
How to hone a child’s fixation
1- Acknowledge and accept. Recognize what the child’s fixation is, and be OK with it. Don’t let it be a source of shame, but a catalyst for learning instead. If you find the fixation cute, others most likely do too, so don’t worry too much about it being atypical.
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 get the fixation out of their system before moving onto a more challenging task such as reading.
3- Tap into the fixation 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 academic or therapeutic 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
- Labeling 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 the fun, look up the symbolism of the object your child is fixated on. For instance, when I looked up the symbolism of doors I found references to a new challenge, transitions, an escape, passage away from the past and into the future.
Does your child have a fixation? Are you working to eliminate it, or are you embracing and nurturing it?