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Ep 8: Repetitive Behavior and Restricted Interests: Superpower and Coping Mechanism for Our Kids

Many neurodiverse people have special interests and engage in repetitive behaviors. These interests are a crucial way for our kids to connect with others. But sometimes their interests and behaviors can be limiting, especially in school or other social settings.


These behaviors can sometimes even be dangerous, depending on the situation (think about a child who touches a stranger’s hair in public, for example). So, it’s up to us as parents to think of ways to reshape their interests in a healthy way.


In today’s episode, we talk about why neurodiverse kids engage in special interests and repetitive behaviors with such intensity, how it can become problematic in their everyday lives, and how we can use those interests to motivate our kids to engage with the world in new ways. Plus, we’re introducing our new “What the What” segment and we hope you enjoy it.




In this episode, you’ll learn...

  • [09:00] People with neurodiversity engage in special interests and repetitive behaviors with high intensity for several reasons

  • [20:03] How this can become really problematic when they're unable to stop the interest independently

  • [31:26] Strategies to identify the function of the repetitive behavior and how we can use them as a motivator to help our kids engage with the world socially

  • [48:00] Our new What the What segment that will recap each episode

  • [50:10] The Last Word from our kids about their first special interests




If you just can't get enough of us, don’t forget to join our newsletter and check out our other projects.


Links mentioned in this episode…





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Transcript for "Ep 8: Repetitive Behavior and Restricted Interests: Superpower and Coping Mechanism for the Neurodiverse:"


Gwen:

If you have an appreciation for honest and often irreverent conversations about parenting humans with neurodiversity, you have found your home. I'm Gwen.

Kristen:

And I'm Kristen. And together, we have 35 years experience parenting some fiercely amazing humans, which gives us an endless supply of stories, of inspiring failures and heartbreaking winds.

Gwen:

Welcome to You Don't Want A Hug, Right? We've been having these conversations for years, cracking ourselves up. We've always wanted to share the hilarity and the hard with other parents. So here we are.

Kristen:

Grab a cozy blanket and a beverage and go hide in a closet nearest you.

Gwen:

KK, hi.

Kristen:

Hey, Gwenie.

Gwen:

We haven't seen each other face to face in, I don't know, four days, three days?

Kristen:

No, two days.

Gwen:

Two days. KK was just out here visiting me in Michigan, and we had the most lovely five days.

Kristen:

We really did. We spent a lot of time in the car. Gwen took me to the most beautiful part of Michigan, Northern Michigan. Yeah? Is that right?

Gwen:

Correct.

Kristen:

And we saw so many lakes and so many trees, and the cuteness was off the charts.

Gwen:

It really was. It was a relaxed way to spend time talking about this podcast and the work that we're doing. It was a retreat of our very own.

Kristen:

Speaking of which, we were also able to visit the fields where we're going to have our retreat.

Gwen:

Correct. That was a whole separate direction of driving, but we did it.

Kristen:

We determined... Well, so many things happened in the car, friends, but..

Gwen:

So many. So many. 700 miles. By the way, Tim told me we drove seven...

Kristen:

Oh god.

Gwen:

... hundred miles.

Kristen:

I believe it because, well, we did drive through a torrential rain neither of us had ever experienced. And it turns out Gwen can't talk about other things when she's hanging onto the steering wheel for dear life.

Gwen:

Who should be talking about other things?

Kristen:

Nobody. But you know who wasn't talking about other things at other times? Me. It turns out I'm rather quiet. And Gwen likes to talk. I know this is a shocker.

Gwen:

I am a verbal processor.

Kristen:

And I like to look out the window. I'm trying to look at some trees, and Gwen wants to know what I think.

Gwen:

Well, I was like, "Hello? You're here five days. We have a load of stuff to talk about. Would you start verbalizing your thoughts, please?" And Kristen's like you just verbalized a big thought, and I'm going to need a few minutes before you verbalize another one. So I think after the second day, we found more of a balance.

Kristen:

We did.

Gwen:

I just held it in, almost was biting my tongue to not keep sharing thoughts so as to not overwhelm Kristen into becoming mute.

Kristen:

Yes.

Gwen:

Yes.

Kristen:

That was what was happening.

Gwen:

But you know what? We had some big ticket items that we covered in the car.

Kristen:

We really did. We got so much done.

Gwen:

And we just stuck to that agenda, and that helped me to not squirrel squirrel everywhere. It had me wondering if I should medicate myself, actually.

Kristen:

I actually left with the same curious thought. Just kidding.

Gwen:

I already take Lexapro. Okay? Let's just be grateful that my anxiety is in check.

Kristen:

True that. True that.

Gwen:

Okay. So anyway, we had a great retreat. We've talked about a lot of things. We planned a lot of things. So there's some things coming in the pipe. But first and foremost is the retreat. Kristen and I will be uploading some pictures and video that we took when we went and visited the fields of Michigan with Irene, and you'll just see the magic that ensued from that visit. So we did a lot of planning for that retreat, and we're pretty darn excited about it.

Kristen:

Yeah. So sign up, get your spot secured. We'll talk about it more later. But right now we're going to turn to our Grahamism and Rylanism.

Gwen:

Yeah, we are. Okay. Do you have a special Grahamism for us today?

Kristen:

I do. Our topic today is on repetitive behavior and restricted interests. And in honor of that, I was going to talk a little bit about Graham and I having a conversation around what makes it hard for him when he can't talk about his special interest or engage in it. And he says that when he gets denied something that has to do with Pokemon or Mario Kart...

I said those things wrong. When he hears this, he'll be very mad.

... that when he gets denied that it's like a blood clot and stress builds up. And then he gets in a downward spiral of stress and jittery nerves. So it makes it very hard for me to interrupt his special interest, knowing that it's providing him this.

Gwen:

He could die of a blood clot.

Kristen:

He could die of blood clot any second.

Gwen:

That is heavy stuff.

Kristen:

It was heavy. It was a heavy piece of information.

Gwen:

I'll have to ask Rylan what it feels like because I'm real quick to just shut it down. He gets three mentions of Pokemon a day, and then I'm like, "Is mom interested in this?" "No." "Do I want to talk about it?" "No." "Okay. What does that mean?" "Well, can I just tell you one more thing?" No. But if I knew he was going to have a blood clot, I would surely allow at least two more mentions. I think that's really interesting, Graham, because that is what it feels like to him, and that's a pretty big deal.

Kristen:

Yeah, it is a pretty big deal.

Gwen:

It is. Well, I'll do a Rylanism focused on special interests too. It started when he was younger. And one of his first special interests was Angry Birds. And luckily, most of his special interests, they're like common enough that you can find other people who are interested in them. And so Angry Birds, we had a big birthday party that was Angry Birds. And then he went to get his hair cut and we had the same young man probably in his twenties, Brandon, early thirties, and he was great and he loved Rylan. He chatted with Rylan about his special interests. He had young kids, so he understood his special interests.

And Rylan goes, in his squeaky young Rylan voice, "Can you please give me an angry bird in the back of my hair?" And Brandon came over. He's like, "All right, mom, this is what he has requested." And Brandon happened to be a master of carving images in people's scalps, meaning trim the hair so that the image shows. And so he said, "I can do an angry bird. Is it okay?" And I was like, "You know what? Whatever. Go for it." Oh my gosh. It became the thing that we did with Brandon every haircut.

Kristen:

How cool.

Gwen:

So you knew what Rylan's special interest was based on the image in the back of his head.

Kristen:

Which honestly you would see all the time since he doesn't face you when he's talking to you.

Gwen:

That is true. Yes, that is true. Good point. So first it was Angry Bird. Then it evolved into a Harry Potter scar. And then it went into a groundhogs footprint.

Kristen:

Okay.

Gwen:

That was so obscure. Brandon's like, "I'm going to need a picture of this one mom." It's like, "Why?"

Kristen:

Yeah.

Gwen:

"You don't know what a groundhog's footprint is. Go educate yourself, Brandon." So it just kept going. Then it was Pokemon. He had peek Pikachu. And so that just became a really fun thing that we did to satisfy special interests.

Kristen:

Brandon must've been very sad the day Rylan no longer wanted to do that.

Gwen:

You think that it stopped? It didn't.

Kristen:

Oh God, that's too much.

Gwen:

We just moved to Michigan.

Kristen:

Oh, gotcha. Gotcha. Yeah.

Gwen:

I'm going to post pictures of every iteration of his haircuts.

Kristen:

Please do.

Gwen:

I will. All right. Take us away, Kristen, into this episode.

Kristen:

Okay. So repetitive behavior and restricted interests is the other big category for autism, alongside social communication. So we hear a lot, and we talk a lot about challenges with social communication, how our kids don't often understand the nuances. They have difficulty reading facial cues, knowing the rules of engagement, depending on who their social partner is or what the environment is, how they're supposed to adjust, how they're communicating. But I think we don't talk as much about is the other category. And lots of us have special interests that we can go deeply into, right? It's a pretty common thing to do. But when it comes to our neurodiverse population, and that's those of our friends and family that are autistic or have ADHD or OCD, or Rett Syndrome, there's a variety of different kinds of brains that engage in this, those special interests or need to engage in repetitive behavior come at an intensity and a frequency that can really interrupt their lives.

So when we think about repetitive behavior, sometimes you'll hear people call it stemming. We call it stemming. It can look like hand flapping and lining up toys. Those are kind of those classic autistic behaviors, rocking or humming, jumping, spinning, twirling, headbanging. Actually, Graham bangs his head all throughout the night while he sleeps on his pillow. Strangest thing, and we can't figure it out, but he is always done it and he still does. All through the night, he bangs his head on the pillow.

Gwen:

Lifting his head up and down?

Kristen:

Lifting it all the way up and banging it down on the pillow, yeah.

Gwen:

While he's sleeping?

Kristen:

While he's sleeping.

Gwen:

Does his neck hurt in the mornings?

Kristen:

He's just not a reporter of things that happen on the inside. So I don't know if it hurts. You would think it would, but maybe he has very strong neck muscles at this point.

Gwen:

Wow.

Kristen:

But our people that engage in a lot of these behaviors, the function of the behavior, the reason that they're doing it is to either gain energy or to kind of stimulate themselves, to get themselves going. They do it to conversely block out too much stimulation in the environment.

Gwen:

It's coping.

Kristen:

It's coping.

Gwen:

It's a coping strategy.

Kristen:

A hundred percent, dealing with anxiety. And sometimes just because it feels good, folks. It feels good.

Gwen:

I remember a little boy in Rylan's elementary years. We'll call him David. His name was not David. But he was the sweetest little boy. He had autism, and he would pace in the back of the classroom. And I can remember teachers kind of talking about trying to tame that behavior, which made no sense because that's all that would do, was allow bigger behaviors to come because he needed that pacing just to regulate himself. But I can remember being at the zoo with Rylan, and we were at the lion, at the lion exhibit at the windows. And you know how the lions will just kind of walk back and forth? This lion was just pacing back and forth. And Rylan goes, "That lion, he's as good at pacing as David is." And it was the sweetest. He didn't see the pacing as an odd behavior. He just was like, damn, David's really good at pacing.

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

So I think these behaviors, if the kids are used to seeing them growing up, we don't have to see those as odd.

Kristen:

Yeah. I think sometimes there's such a focus with intervention as well in extinguishing some of these behaviors that have a really important function, and that can be traumatic. So it really is important to have a good behavior therapist who knows what they're doing and understands that those behaviors are serving a really important function. And we might want to shape them to be more appropriate, but we don't want to extinguish them when they have a purpose.

Gwen:

Right.

Kristen:

So a lot of autistic people report that those behaviors, those stemming behaviors are necessary for their wellbeing and their happiness. And restricted interests, I think, can also serve a similar function. So another hallmark of autistic and other neurodiverse people, some individuals get fixated on parts of things like plumbing or electrical cords where they have to collect those items, or read up on those items, or understand them inside and out, upside and down. Others like to focus on train schedules or categorical facts about a particular topic, like animals or clips from TV shows or movies. We'll talk a little bit more about our kids' special interests in a minute. But why do people with what I like to call spicy brains... I saw that on the TikTok recently, and I liked it.

Gwen:

Spicy brains.

Kristen:

Spicy brains.

Gwen:

Can't say I've ever heard that one.

Kristen:

Neither. I heard it on the TikTok.

Gwen:

I could think of other reasons that you might say somebody has a spicy brain, but I don't know that I love that.

Kristen:

That's not appropriate for our listeners today. I don't think one.

Gwen:

Right. How about intricate brains?

Kristen:

Maybe people do have spicy thoughts and that's their special interest. That's a whole other conversation.

Gwen:

Oh, let's hope that doesn't become any of our children's. Okay.

Kristen:

Anyway, people with these intricate brains...

Gwen:

Thank you.

Kristen:

... find a lot of these interests to be automatically reinforcing for a couple of reasons. So people that are autistic have reported that structure of thinking about these things and engaging in behaviors that have to do with these things, provide a structure that's calming and provides a certain order to their day, gives them something to connect with others about. So if it's not too obscure, it can be a bridge to talk to other neurodiverse people or people who are not neurodiverse, who have a great special interest. It's just not getting in the way of their life. They've also reported that it helps them feel relaxed and happy, so why wouldn't we want them to be engaging in these things?

Gwen:

Well, it's because it's something they're comfortable with, and something that they feel confident and secure in because so much of the world is not something that they feel confident and secure in.

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

So a special interest enables them to find a connection. Even if it's a connection to an inanimate object...

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

... it's still a connection.

Kristen:

Paperclips or hubcaps.

Gwen:

Or hubcaps, or... I met a couple women at a conference that they do in Colorado for special needs parents. And it's an amazing conference, and I learned a lot going to that. But one woman I was sitting next to was like, "Oh, thank God my son just switched to special interests. He was really interested in shadows, his shadow in particular."

Kristen:

Oh yes, yes. I've seen that.

Gwen:

But he could never catch the shadow, and so he just kept trying.

Kristen:

Oh.

Gwen:

Right? How exhausting though as the mom to constantly hear about how he's trying to catch a shadow, and he never could.

Kristen:

I have a few friends who are non-vocal, people with autism, and they also look at their shadow, but they look at it behind them. And so they're not trying to catch it. They're trying to get away from it, I think.

Gwen:

Oh, that's another really difficult dynamic, isn't it?

Kristen:

Really is.

Gwen:

Well, she was grateful that he had switched from that to dressing in women's clothing. Her husband was not excited about the switch, but she found it to be a relief.

Kristen:

Wow. What you end up being relieved about in this life...

Gwen:

I know.

Kristen:

... is really very interesting.

Gwen:

And then the woman next to her was like, "Oh, my son was obsessed with wearing women's heels for a long time, but we've moved past that one."

Kristen:

Yeah.

Gwen:

I sat there like, oh, angry Birds feels really doable.

Kristen:

You do when you meet with other parents. You have such a connection because you get each other's lives, but you do sometimes walk away feeling very grateful for some of the scenarios that you're dealing with as opposed to some of the really difficult things other people are dealing with.

Gwen:

Even waterfowl is probably one of your more obscure ones, but that's still a lovely thing to talk about.

Kristen:

Well, Hayden will tell you that 12, 13, 14 year old boys don't want to talk about waterfowl.

Gwen:

Well, no. But at least for you as the mother, it's not a hubcap.

Kristen:

True.

Gwen:

Right?

Kristen:

Yep. He has lots of interesting facts. So while it was poke yourself in the eye boring, it at least was enough new information that you could handle it. Yeah.

Gwen:

It wasn't a Pez dispenser.

Kristen:

Oh, that's a good new one. Talk about that one. Because when I just visited Gwen, there was a small collection of Pez dispensers in the guest room for me, and it was the trio of Harry, Hermione, and... What's the third one's name?

Gwen:

I don't know.

Kristen:

Ron. Oh my gosh. Sorry Ron fans out there. But it was those three Harry Potter characters that were staring at me while I slept.

Gwen:

I'm so sorry. I told him that's the only place they were allowed because it's a room that I never have to enter. But they were there for you?

Kristen:

They were there just for me.

Gwen:

Well, at least they were proof that the new interests exists.

Kristen:

They were indeed proof.

Gwen:

He hasn't talked about them in a while. And he described to me the other day why. He said, "Mom, I'm really sorry. I tried to make that a really big interest, but they don't transform and they don't move. And once I eat the candy, what's left to do with them?" And I said, "You are correct." So it is not an intricate enough object...

Kristen:

Okay.

Gwen:

... to maintain his level of special interest that he thought they would, which I'm kind of grateful. They're five bucks a pop, and I just hated the idea of him buying a hundred of them.

Kristen:

Yeah. Yeah.

Gwen:

Although remember, there's only 22 grams of sugar in each Pez dispenser full of candy. So it's a reasonable treat. We've moved past. We've moved past the Pez dispensers.

Kristen:

Which is great. When our kids are able to adjust their special interests, recognize that not everybody wants to engage in that.

Gwen:

No, that had nothing to do with it.

Kristen:

That's true.

Gwen:

He didn't recognize that. He was bored with the lack of intricacy.

Kristen:

Right. But I think it can become really problematic for people when they're unable to stop the interest independently. And by that, I mean you have to come up with some really amazing thing to help them shift away from the special interest or it's impacting their ability to learn. We saw this with Hayden, incredibly impactful. When he could only think about animals, he refused to engage in other subjects in school. So we would have to bribe him by saying, "You can write one paragraph about birds in this habitat, but the rest has to be about geography."

Gwen:

Yep.

Kristen:

Right? So it was really challenging. And then also, it interests the person's interest in social opportunities. And we see that with Graham incredibly. He struggles so much to engage in any conversation that's not about Nintendo or analyzing movie clips from Disney or Pixar. Those are really the only things, and Pokemon being at the top of the list in terms of video games that he wants to talk about. So I think for folks, when it becomes a significant disruption to other people, to parents, to caregivers, to teachers, to peers, then we have to find strategies to help shape those behaviors in a way that can still provide them the enjoyment and the coping that they're deriving from it, but it doesn't limit them.

Gwen:

Yeah, and it doesn't disrupt their surroundings.

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

Oh my gosh, friends, Kristen and I have some news. Don't we, KK?

Kristen:

We have such news.

Gwen:

We have been so excited about the idea of organizing retreats for this community of parents, of neurodiverse children, namely the mothers or people who identify as mothers. And so we already have a retreat planned.

Kristen:

We sure do.

Gwen:

It's this fall already. You don't have a whole lot of time to plan, but you don't need it because we have the whole thing planned for you already.

Kristen:

You just have to jump on a plane, in a car, in a train, however you want to get here. But you need to come to South Haven, Michigan to our retreat, which we fondly have called Let's Pretend We Have Zero Kids Badass Moms Retreat. It's our first one.

Gwen:

Yeah, we did.

Kristen:

Yeah, we did.

Gwen:

Yeah, we did.

Kristen:

Yeah, we did. It is the dreamiest glamping resort on earth.

Gwen:

It's true.

Kristen:

And it's just for us. So this is not going to be a retreat that you come to learn all about how to be a better mom, is it?

Gwen:

No, ma'am.

Kristen:

It sure isn't.

Gwen:

We can't tell you how to do that.

Kristen:

No, we can't. We're just trying to eke out in existence ourselves. This is about you. This is about who you are as a woman, not who you are as a mother. And it's about connecting to yourself and to other women who get your life.

Gwen:

It sure is. It's like time to inhale with the space to exhale, because that space to exhale is so often missing, isn't it?

Kristen:

Yeah. Picture it zero kids, just you, a group of really cool women who understand your world and your life in the fields of Michigan.

Gwen:

Right. So the fields of Michigan is a place that I hold very dear to my heart. My friend Irene owns it, and I have stayed there twice. And it is like the highlight of my year. Staying in these glamping tents, it feels like a Four Seasons resort, but with a canvas over your head. It's divine. And I'm just going to encourage you to go to our website to look at photos because we put a whole bunch of photos in there. And it's fall, so we showed you what this place looks like. South Haven, Michigan guys, it is on the water of Lake Michigan. The resort is in the woods, and we can bike to the beach and to the little town. The whole thing is quintessential coastal Michigan town. And if you haven't ever been to Lake Michigan, it's like the ocean. I remember Kristen was just gaping at the site because it looks like an ocean. So the fields of Michigan is being pampered to the highest degree, but in the woods. They are rated one of the premium resorts to go to in this country.

Kristen:

They have twinkly lights in the trees, friends.

Gwen:

Yes, they do.

Kristen:

You're going to have massages maybe in a cabin in the woods, or maybe in the midst of a lavender field, or perhaps the blueberry farms.

Gwen:

We are going to provide you with a massage. We are also going to provide you with 30 minutes of free consultation with us, your hosts. You are going to have farm to table breakfasts and dinners every day. Guys, it's too much. It's too much. We will also be doing workshops throughout the day and giving you tons of downtime to just inhale and exhale. And there's going to be so many pumpkins. And I love pumpkins so much, Kristen. I just love pumpkins. There's so many pumpkins there. Maybe we can go pumpkin picking.

Kristen:

I love pumpkins, but I'm not a pumpkin spice person.

Gwen:

Oh, that's funny.

Kristen:

So I draw the line.

Gwen:

Just look at the pumpkins. Okay?

Kristen:

Okay.

Gwen:

Fine. All right, so go to our website, youdontwantahug.com. There is a link at the top for the fall retreat, Let's Pretend We Have Zero Kids Badass Moms Retreat. There are only 17 spots available, friends. Get on it today. We are opening up registration on July the 10th. I don't know when this will air, but if it's not the 10th yet, tune in on the 10th 8:00 AM and book your ticket. We really hope to meet you there.

Kristen:

Can't wait.

Gwen:

During middle school, he was at a private Christian school for those three years, and his interests in turtles and tortoises at that point was sky high. And that's all he wanted to talk about, was turtles. So his team was so brilliant there. They would do prayer requests, or they would open each class period with a short prayer. And every single class period of every single day, his arm was in the air praying for the turtles, save the turtles. And it's sweet for the first minute. And then his classmates were like, "Oh, again, with the turtles?" So on every whiteboard in every classroom, they asked him to draw a picture of a turtle. And then every class period that they would open their prayer, he was only allowed to point at his drawing. And then they had to make it a rule. We're not going to out loud, but by you pointing, we're recognizing the need to save the turtles. And it worked. So they incorporated his interest still, but in a really unique way.

And then they also used the turtle... He would forget his backpack. Every single class, which still baffles me. It was so heavy, he would just leave class without it. So at the doorway to every class period, they had a picture of a turtle shell that they printed out, and laminated, of course.

Kristen:

Of course.

Gwen:

And he had to touch the turtle shell and say, "Rylan, do you have your shell?" And that was how he made sure he had his backpack. So I thought it was brilliant. I thought they used his special interest in many different ways to tie into his day, his schedule, and his learning.

Kristen:

It's amazing.

Gwen:

It takes a really creative school team though.

Kristen:

Yeah, not to want to just shut it down, but find a way that makes it socially appropriate. The ultimate would be if they were doing some social emotional learning with the students who could just tolerate him asking to pray for the turtles every day.

Gwen:

I don't know. It was six times a day, Kristen. As a mom, I appreciated that they taught him another strategy to not dominate because other people have things that they were concerned about as well.

Kristen:

Other creatures in the world?

Gwen:

Well, and humans too, grandparents, siblings.

Kristen:

I think it's a good point because a behavior can be really cute in a certain setting or when our kids are little. But now that they're in middle school and high school and adults, it's potentially dangerous, right? If we're stroking other people's hair, if we're putting our forehead against other people's foreheads, if we're licking people, and if they're doing those things in indiscriminately with strangers, it can be really problematic. And we see that a lot with our kids.

Gwen:

Teenagers.

Kristen:

Yeah, we see a lot with trying to connect with people around our repetitive behavior or our restricted interests that just isn't going to work anyway. So I'll put a post in our show notes to some strategies around really trying to identify what is the function of that behavior and how can we shape or replace, or how can we use these special interests or these repetitive behaviors as a motivator to help us engage with the world and get done what we need to get done?

Gwen:

Well, and a lot of times, it's finding a different way because they still need to do the behavior. Rylan, our book is, if I squeeze your head, I'm sorry. Well, he needed to squeeze. And I remember a class in that same middle school. He would just walk up to friends and just either squeeze their shoulders or their heads as a way of showing his love for them. So it was never an angry squeeze. That,, he saves for his sister. But he walked up to a girl, and they were seated, and squeezed her leg. Well, guess what?

Kristen:

Oh yeah.

Gwen:

You can't squeeze kids legs anymore. And the girl, of course, was uncomfortable. And so his team immediately got some small Nerf balls and just gave him one in every class. And so that he would just have that in his lap. And if he felt the need to squeeze, he would squeeze the Nerf ball.

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

And then we never dealt with it again. So it's having the creative thinking, and knowing you can't just eliminate the behavior. You have to just modify and give them the tools they need in order to switch.

Kristen:

Right. They're still to... The behavior's, still serving a function, so you have to replace it with something. You can't just make it go away, or it'll show up in another way that may or may not be appropriate. I remember when our kids were little, Graham used to go up to anybody who was on a device of any kind to see what they were doing.

Gwen:

Oh, of course.

Kristen:

And he would literally sit on them, sit on them.

Gwen:

In a restaurant, at a booth?

Kristen:

In a restaurant, in an airport. It didn't matter where we were. And so when you're six or eight, or even 10 maybe, that's acceptable. When you are 17, it freaks people to F out. My kid is six foot tall. And if he tries to scooch in on the bench with you in your booth at the restaurant, you're going to be freaked out.

Gwen:

Exactly. Rylan did the same thing. He would just see that somebody had a screen, and he would get up and walk across wherever we were. Oh yeah. To go look at it. And he didn't find that inappropriate at all. We couldn't explain to him verbally why that was socially inappropriate. He didn't buy it. That was problematic. That was really problematic. So we eventually had to put a firm rule in place. But there's situations like that. You can't direct him to a different screen in that instance. So that's just where really creative what's behind and really deep thinking about that comes into play. And that's so exhausting.

Kristen:

It is. And for a lot of our kids, that executive functioning is compromised. So controlling an impulse is really, really hard. Especially when it's something that is this deep special interest, there's almost no way to control it. I think about Graham and Rylan and what they have in common, which is Pokemon, and Nintendo and the developer of Nintendo, and all things Nintendo. Our kids are obsessed with it. I think it has helped Rylan in the ways that I wish it helped Graham. Because Graham's moved away from the cards and just wants to do the online game, which has him isolated in his room. And he is almost 20, so I don't feel as comfortable telling him what to do all the time. But he has this app called, or this software called Discord, where he's able to chat with people from all over the world, which is a whole other problematic situation.

However, because Graham is so innocent and Pokemon is his only interest, he gets in these groups with other people who are all about Pokemon. So he has online friends. And he just recently, yesterday, put on another tournament online. He's asked the people who own the server if he can put on a tournament. He had 80 people interested

Gwen:

Really?

Kristen:

And he facilitated it, and he was successful.

Gwen:

That's amazing.

Kristen:

Yeah, so it has done great things. But at the same time, he struggles to even engage with us as a family in anything that isn't related to Pokemon, Mario Kart, or Disney.

Gwen:

Right. Because in some ways, it's providing him the social input that we all need, but it's isolating him in the same breath...

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

... and encouraging him to dig deeper into what isolates him. But he needs it.

Kristen:

Right. So I have to figure out a way, and Greg and I are trying so hard right now to figure out a way how to modify and shape this interest, and have him engaging in other things that are nowhere near as... He gets a dopamine hit every three seconds. What's going to compete with that? I don't know.

Gwen:

Rylan described his interest in Pokemon. It was just a couple weeks ago. I was talking to him about, why is this the one interest that has remained? Because he's had the Pokemon interest probably for 10 years, and it just doesn't go away, and it doesn't lessen. And he said, "Mom, Pokemon, pocket monsters," he calls them, "have always been there for me. And they have been constant companions of mine that I can call up and I can play with." And when he says that, I can post videos of him for hours in the backyard playing with invisible Pokemon. Because in the show you throw a pokeball, and then out comes something and then it transforms and it evolves. And so it's ever changing. And there's thousands of them and they all have evolutions. And so in his mind, it's unlimited access to imagination and friends. And so he wouldn't say I was lonely and I needed friends, but they're always there for him. He says, "I just reach in my pocket and there they are."

Kristen:

Oh God.

Gwen:

I know. I know.

Kristen:

So sweet. It's funny because Graham isn't motivated socially outside of his special interests, where Hayden, Hayden's interest in animals was so profound that he would read encyclopedias in bed. He knew he knows and can identify so many animals, it freaks me out. But he started to recognize, when he got older, that he just wanted to think and talk about chickens, and it was super not cool. And his friends that he's had since middle school still tease him about his desire to do this. And one of his best friends from his elementary years, who he's still friends with, she still also has a deep, deep interest in animals. It happens to be horses now. And I think Hayden recognized this is too limiting. I'm going to have to include something else. So he switched his special interest to music. And then it became incredibly deep around 90s grunge music. First, it was only Nirvana. Thank God it was nineties grunge and not something that I couldn't handle.

Gwen:

You could handle 90s grunge music?

Kristen:

Hey, totally love that music. That's music from my college years.

Gwen:

Okay. But he was able to have the insight...

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

... to switch an interest. That's pretty rare in our population. And Hayden doesn't identify as autistic anymore, so that explains that too.

Kristen:

But he does have OCD, and he does have ADHD. So he still has this real categorical thinking pattern. He's just socially aware and motivated enough to change it because he doesn't have the autism piece. So you're right. What's really fascinating is when I think about Jameson whose special interest in anime has been...

Gwen:

Fierce.

Kristen:

... fierce and nearly lifelong. He has a tattoo of Lupin the Third on his arm. And now, right now...

Gwen:

Hold on. Hold on. Most of us, I would say maybe all of us don't know who Lupin the Third is. Can you please tell our listeners about Lupin the Third and why Jameson is attached to Lupin the Third?

Kristen:

I couldn't tell you why. I can tell you that he's a very... Well, it's based on the French series around this detective, but this anime character is very [inaudible 00:39:23] and funny and goofy, very thin with long sideburns and a certain kind of hairdo, that to be honest, my child has modeled his transition as from a female to a male on Lupin. That's how deep this interest is. And it used to be... God, I can't even remember some of the names of these things, but right now, it's Red Dead Redemption. And it's so deep that he's going to some conference or something down in Arizona, which is so hot right now, he could die. So I don't know if we're going to let him go. However...

Gwen:

Red [inaudible 00:40:01]

Kristen:

Red Dead Redemption.

Gwen:

This is something about Lupin the Third?

Kristen:

No, it's a whole different thing than Lupin. Lupin's taken a little bit of a backseat.

Gwen:

Okay.

Kristen:

So he is able to shift among characters and shows, but it's within this whole genre.

Gwen:

But it's anime?

Kristen:

It's anime, or a video game that's anime-like. And so Jameson doesn't give a two you know whats whether other people like this or not. He will find his people. Instead of trying to fit in, he will just find the people that also love this. And he's a master at it. He's really good at... He's not afraid. He's an extrovert. He's not afraid to go out there and find his people. And they're out there, which is also fascinating.

Gwen:

Yeah, he is so much more socially motivated than Rylan and Graham.

Kristen:

Absolutely.

Gwen:

Rylan is only socially motivated if it's somebody that engages in his special interest with him. I think it's more the special interest that motivates him than the connection or the person.

Kristen:

Right.

Gwen:

Because he really has no interest in hanging out with anybody who is not willing and able to talk about Pokemon in some facet.

Kristen:

Yeah, it's really true. I think you can see these nuanced differences where some kids are using their special interests, socially motivated to some degree, and others who are only interacting with others, they want more input about their special interests.

Gwen:

That's a really interesting distinguisher. And I don't know if I've ever thought about it that way.

Kristen:

Me neither.

Gwen:

And maybe that's something that shifts with maturity or with the development of that prefrontal cortex. Because Rylan is very social.

Kristen:

Yeah, he is social.

Gwen:

But I don't know that it's ever willingly social outside of his interests. We've been working with him lately on teaching him how to hang out. Because when we'll have friends or family over there, inevitably is just kind of sitting around and chatting. And he is so uncomfortable in that. And it's problematic every single gathering because he'll walk in and just stand there and stare at me, demanding an answer as to what he can do of his interests. And so we've been working on, I need you to set a timer for 20 minutes and sit in the same room with us with something you're interested in your lap. And it is like pulling teeth.

Kristen:

Yeah, I would say the same for Graham. Even with just us, he struggles to find a way to get into a conversation. And even when we make openings for him, he's only interested in maybe saying one thing, and then he is out. But just to kind of wrap up this conversation before we get into this kind of new segment we're going to tell you about, I think it's really important to know that companies and providers are looking at gaming as a way to engage people in work, which I think is fascinating. And there are some research now being done on how to incorporate the structure of gaming into the structure of a position and a job, or how teachers can help kids access education through this gaming strategies,

Gwen:

Really?

Kristen:

So I'll put some information about that in the show notes because the research is fascinating. Some community center boards and some agencies like voc rehab are starting to look into using things like this to help our kids.

Gwen:

And that's really interesting because there's a company here in Michigan called Steelcase, and they are masters of furniture design. But within that, they do deep dive research as to different segments of the population and how they use furniture and space design. And Rylan and I have gone to a couple different workshop kind of things. And one of them, they brought in a whole group of individuals with autism to try out all their gaming furniture.

Kristen:

Wow, that's amazing.

Gwen:

It was amazing, the setup that they have. I wish we could just rent it every weekend and just drop him off because he was all of a sudden just surrounded by a group of people who were just like him, loved hanging out with each other. And the setting was built for them. The whole space was built for them. So I would love to get somebody from that department of Steelcase on to talk to us more.

Kristen:

That would be really cool. And I think that could be a great job for you in the future, Gwen, to design spaces like that because you're so good at that. We are taking some feedback from a really good friend of mine who recently just told us it would be great to have a little recap of what we talked about. So we thought about having a segment just at the end before our kids do their last word, every podcast. And we're calling it the what the what segment. And that is, what did they just talk about for 40 minutes? I can't even remember.

Gwen:

Yeah, because sometimes we don't even know what we talked about.

Kristen:

We really don't.

Gwen:

But for whatever reason, we do feel like it's working.

Kristen:

Yeah. Well, we're having fun.

Gwen:

The feedback is good enough, and we're having fun. And so we thought that was a great suggestion. What the what did those two ladies just say?

Kristen:

Yeah.

Gwen:

So we're going to give you our top takeaways. Sometimes it'll be, well, hopefully more than one, right?

Kristen:

I hope so.

Gwen:

Hopefully at least three, maybe four, maybe even five if the episode was that good.

Kristen:

Okay. So here's our what the what did we just say? So the first takeaway is repetitive behaviors and restricted interests play a vital role for our neurodiverse population. And they can be calming, motivating, and areas of connection with others.

Gwen:

Our second point is that they can also be limiting, frustrating and isolating, and require parents, teachers, providers to do a whole lot of creative out of the box thinking in order to use and shape their interests in healthy ways and in ways that work for them socially, academically, emotionally, sometimes physically.

Kristen:

Our third point is that for many of our kids, the social motivation is more about their special interests than a need to be interacting with people. This was kind of an aha for us, and maybe we need to redefine for ourselves what it means to be social.

Gwen:

Yeah, I got to do some deep thinking on that one.

Kristen:

Me too.

Gwen:

Maybe I shouldn't make him sit and hang out and chat, since he literally doesn't care. Our fourth and final what for this episode is that requesting a stylist that has the skill to put our special interests into our hair should be an option for all of us.

Kristen:

Can't wait. Can't wait to see what you put in your hair, Gwen.

Gwen:

What would it be? What would you put in your hair?

Kristen:

A book.

Gwen:

Well, I would too, but I was trying to be more creative than just a book. Let's think about that for next time. We're going to ask all of you, if you were to shave a special interest into the back of your head, what would it be? Drop us a note through our website, send us a message, or leave a message on social media and give us your answers. And we just might share some of them in our next episode. All right, let's hand it over to our kids.

Kristen:

Sounds good.

Gwen:

Thanks for listening.

Kristen:

Bye.

Speaker 3:

We know our moms are amazing, but they don't know everything. We think that you deserve to hear from the real expert, their kids. We believe in nothing about us without us. So here it is, the last word.

Kristen:

Hi, Hayden.

Hayden:

Hello.

Kristen:

Today, Gwen and I talked about repetitive behavior and restricted interests, and the ways that somebody who is neurodiverse may engage in those things in ways that are really helpful to them, and then sometimes can be limiting. And I'm wondering, what's your first memory of a really deep special interest for you?

Hayden:

So I think my first ever super deep specialized interests was, shoot, I was probably in preschool, and I was super in a dinosaurs. That was my jam. That's all I would think about, all I'd talk about. And I was convinced I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up, until the day I realized that all the dinosaurs are actually dead and I never actually get to see one.

Kristen:

That kind of put the kibosh on that?

Hayden:

Yeah, so until we get some real world, Jurassic World, then I don't think those dreams are coming true anytime soon.

Kristen:

So then do you think that helped you connect with other people or just kept you busy? Did it make you feel calm? Or what did it do for you that you were so interested?

Hayden:

It did a lot. It definitely helped me connect with a certain group of people. There's a small population, for sure. But it also kept me busy and entertained. And I had quite the imagination growing up, so coupled with my love for dinosaurs, it was always fun just walking around and goggling.

Kristen:

Yeah.

Hayden:

Yeah.

Kristen:

And then it really turned into all kinds of animals, right?

Hayden:

Yes. Probably about first, second grade is when I really broadened into more modern day animals. But it's been from anything from sharks to birds to anything in between.

Kristen:

Yeah.

Hayden:

But it's done a lot for me, I feel.

Kristen:

It got you a job when you were younger?

Hayden:

Yeah, it got me a job when I was about 12 years old.

Kristen:

12 till you were 18.

Hayden:

Yeah.

Kristen:

Where did you work?

Hayden:

This rescue ranch called Happy Dog Ranch, and they had about 70 odd rescue horses.

Kristen:

And what was your job there?

Hayden:

I pretty much did anything they asked me to, but I was particularly a ranch head.

Kristen:

And in charge of the small animals?

Hayden:

Yes.

Kristen:

Yeah. And then I know in some ways you started to find, as you got older, that the animals were starting to limit you a little bit socially.

Hayden:

Well, I'd say about late elementary school to middle school, I realized that people weren't as awestruck with animals as I was and didn't find them quite as fascinating. And that's when I started to realize that people's interests are a lot different than mine. And sometimes to be friends with people and to interact, you have to go outside what you're usually comfortable with and explore other topics. And that's been one of the most impactful things in my life because it has opened me up to so many different new things, including music.

Kristen:

Hey, Jameson.

Jameson:

Hi.

Kristen:

Back from Prague, my intrepid. Traveler.

Jameson:

Yeah.

Kristen:

Wow.

Jameson:

Yep.

Kristen:

So, so proud of you.

Jameson:

Yeah. I didn't think my autism could handle it, but here we are.

Kristen:

But you did it.

Jameson:

Yeah.

Kristen:

Yeah. Lots of sensory overload, but you pushed through.

Jameson:

Oh yeah, definitely. Best experience in my life. Passed the class. It was great. I get credit.

Kristen:

That's awesome. Today, Gwen and I talked about repetitive behavior and restricted interests as a part of an autism experience, person experiencing autism, and how those things can really help your brain and help you move through the world, and sometimes can get in your way. So what do you think are some of the kind of repetitive behavior or restricted interests that you've had that have both helped you and limited you?

Jameson:

I'd have to say the big one is I think music.

Kristen:

Yeah.

Jameson:

The big benefit to it is that in high school, when I started taking music theory classes and I started joining those honor groups and such, my obsession with how music worked, how it sounded as a whole, how it all just kind of, I feel that it essentially kind of helped me drive my, I guess my motivation into getting into college and continuing to do any form of music I can. But I feel like with that, the drawbacks in it are that I get a little bit rigid in black and white thinking with how music works, the program that I'm in. I'm very classically trained, and I do classical and I've done jazz, and that's about the crux of it. And so kind of learning and being willing to adjust my understanding has been a little bit of a challenge, especially in recording arts and learning how to mic different things in a completely different genre because it's completely different.

But I think that that's been a big one for me. Even though I absolutely preach that, we should be able to learn music differently, so it's a little bit of a hit or miss, I guess.

Kristen:

Yeah.

Jameson:

Yeah.

Kristen:

I think too, I've heard you say that music organizes you, organizes your brain. You feel like less chaos happening.

Jameson:

Yes, I, a hundred percent, do. Because with, I guess the human language, the whole social construct of eye contact, all that kind of stuff, it's very confusing, and it makes things a little bit more complicated for me. Music, I feel like it's the closest thing to human without that complicated array of social rules and all that shit, I guess.

Kristen:

So you get to feel connected and emote, but you don't have to do it with a person.

Jameson:

Exactly. Being verbal sometimes is very difficult, not in the sense of sensory wise, but in the sense of sometimes getting what's in my head or my experience and connotation out into the world.

Kristen:

I also think that your special interest of anime when you were younger, and still, right? Let's face it.

Jameson:

Not as much.

Kristen:

But it went so deep, like Lupin the Third, right? [inaudible 00:54:48]

Jameson:

It's pronounced Lupin.

Kristen:

Lupin the Third which is an anime show based on a...

Jameson:

Oh, do you want me to explain it?

Kristen:

... a story, a French...

Jameson:

French-Japanese man. It's based off of the French novel, Arsène Lupin, and it's essentially his grandson. And he goes on all these little escapades with his little misfit of friends and just kind of... It's pretty cool. I really like it. The music specifically is what really got me into it. It's very jazz oriented. Yeah, no, I...

Kristen:

But I think your special interest of anime really honed your drawing skills and illustration, and it's something you're going to be doing in college as well. So I think both of those things, those deep interests have really helped drive your ability to be successful in school.

Jameson:

Yeah, definitely, especially with art. I'm not necessarily into anime anymore, but I feel like with that, I guess experience and that feeling, and learning what I have and drawing and kind of developing my own kind of style, I definitely feel...

Kristen:

Hey, Ry.

Rylan:

Hi.

Kristen:

This is an episode we did on special interests. And since you're sitting here with your name tag on for the grocery store you work at, can you tell our listeners what's on your name tag?

Rylan:

A turtle because turtles on favorite animal. They're a special interest.

Kristen:

For sure they are.

Rylan:

I also own a pet tortoise named Sheldon.

Kristen:

Why do you think you turtles and tortoises so much?

Rylan:

I don't know. I guess I like them and I start seeing how cute they are and whatnot.

Kristen:

What else do you like about them?

Rylan:

They're cute. They need help, I guess.

Kristen:

Oh, that's a good... Okay. So you're interested in the fact that there's so many endangered turtles?

Rylan:

Yeah, I need to help them.

Kristen:

Yeah. Okay. Can you tell our listeners about just a few of the special interests you've had over the years?

Rylan:

Well, Pokemon, started playing the games.

Kristen:

And what keeps you interested in Pokemon?

Rylan:

They keep adding more stuff, more Pokemon. Every three years or something, they add like a new region. And they're also going to add more Pokemon with the new coming GLC for Pokemon's Scarlet Violet, which I'm super excited for. And I know my friend is also excited.

Kristen:

Great. What are some other special interests that you've had other than Pokemon?

Rylan:

Minecraft. It's open world. It's challenging, which makes stuff fun. You can do basically anything you want. You can...

Kristen:

It uses your imagination?

Rylan:

Yeah.

Kristen:

Okay.

Rylan:

And...

Kristen:

And is that kind of why you liked different video game stuff? You used to really Angry Birds. And that was kind of challenging and that was a game.

Rylan:

Yeah.

Kristen:

Do you remember what other things? You really got into Harry Potter for a while.

Rylan:

This...

Kristen:

Read all the books [inaudible 00:57:58]

Rylan:

This is kind of a very long time ago, but I remember when I was into Cut the Rope.

Kristen:

Oh yeah. And that was a really challenging video game with a fun character, right?

Rylan:

Yeah.

Kristen:

So a lot of your special interests have revolved around interesting animated characters, except for one special interest I'm thinking of. Can we talk about buoys? His head has sunken down. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. This was a very strong special interest of yours for a long time, buoys.

Rylan:

I don't know why.

Kristen:

It's okay. You don't have to know why. But every time we were in a body of water, it was like the first thing on your mind was swimming out to the buoys.

Rylan:

To touch them.

Kristen:

To touch them. I can remember being in Florida, and you had no interest in sharks or the shells or dolphins. You just wanted to touch all the buoys. Do you remember that? You do?

Rylan:

I remember we found a Bowie buried, and it took me Cooper, Nadine, Kelly, you, and Dad and Reagan to pull it out of the sand.

Kristen:

And we did. And do you remember what you wanted to do with it?

Rylan:

What?

Kristen:

Bring it home.

Rylan:

Oh my gosh.

Kristen:

What did I say?

Rylan:

"No, it's way too heavy."

Kristen:

Okay. All right. Anything else you want to say about special interests?

Rylan:

No.

Kristen:

All right. Thanks, buddy.

Gwen:

Thanks for joining us for this episode of You Don't Want A Hug, Right? We'd sure love it if you'd subscribe to our show and your favorite podcast app. Missing an episode would be catastrophic.

Kristen:

And if you just can't get enough of us, join our newsletter and dig into all of our other projects and ways you can connect with us at youdontwantahug.com

Gwen:

And food for thought, if you need to create a panic room out of your closet. In order to find that parenting kindness, we offer our fullest support. See you next time.


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