The Amazing Mr Squiggle! or how embracing obsessions can make the world a better place for people with Autism

Today I am going to talk about Obsessions:

In the early days, a lot of well-meaning but very misguided 'professionals' might try to tell you to squash obsessions. Indeed when Liam was small and starting in a mixed special needs pre-school, the staff would take his Thomas the Tank Engine toys away from him and put them out of reach.
 This just made poor Liam more obsessed with holding them ALL the time and it became a problem when he needed to do other tasks.

The solution was provided by a teacher in his Autism Specialist School, who had years of experience of reaching children with autism. We got Liam a clear plastic pvc back-pack and when he needed to do a hands on task, she gently put all the Thomas trains in it, then let him wear it on his back.

When he completed the necessary task, he was allowed hold them again. Slowly he reduced the number of engines and increased his participation until he could happily attend at 'circle time'  holding only "Trevor the Traction Engine"  which was his favourite.

Opinion on encouraging or trying to extinguish obsessions remains divided. Even in the ABA community where you would expect people to be better informed about how to motivate and engage learners; you will come across the practice of  "banning" access to favourite TV shows, because they think it isn't age appropriate or worse, encourages the child to tune out.

It makes me grind my teeth in frustration when I read or hear about it.

Firstly; Why make a rod for your own back? If you find that there is a TV show or video that engages your child long enough for you to have a cup of coffee, a shower or even better; to go to the toilet with the door closed, (FFS) - why are you removing that from your child's life?

And Secondly; Why not use it as a force for good? One of the most effective tools in evidence based teaching is the power of 'Pairing" - using something that a learner loves to get them to feel comfortable with something new and engage with it.

Crushing obsessions can lead to all kinds of trouble as I explained above. Embracing obsessions or as self advocate Sean Foley calls them: "Passions" can be a way of reaching the parts that other teaching methods cannot reach.

The journey of embracing, then pairing and developing a wider range of interests for someone with autism can be as rewarding for the people who love them as it is for the person themselves. As Sean said in the 2011 RTE Documentary 'Living With Autism' -*

"Take a step into their world, and they in turn will take a step into yours"

My Facebook friend and fellow evidence-based education advocate Jodi has found this.
I will let her tell you her story herself:

"Hi there,
I wanted to talk about Ethan's interests and how tapping into his interests from early on, has helped to calm him, teach him things and helped him to cope with situations he finds difficult.
Thinking back with the knowledge I now have about my beautiful 7 year old, Ethan's very first special interest was the Teletubbies...when he was around 9 months old he was sitting on my lap while I was flicking through the TV channels and I chanced upon an episode of the Teletubbies. Immediately my active little baby boy started giggling with the most beautiful, infectious baby laughter. I hadn't seen him respond to anything with such immediate obvious joy before. 

A few weeks later while I was driving, he was crying in his car seat and on a whim I said "Eh oh!!" like the Teletubbies... he stopped crying immediately and giggled in response. So I continued and was delighted with his responsiveness to this interaction. Fast forward several  months and he would often wake up at night sobbing uncontrollably. We would try everything to settle him, I would breastfeed him, give him Panadol, cuddle him and rock him, but nothing would work...until one night we tried showing him a Teletubbies DVD. He would stop crying and stare at the screen, mesmerized until he calmed down enough to go to sleep. He was non-verbal as a toddler and most days would tantrum until we put the Teletubbies DVD on. 

Around age 3 his interest in Teletubbies waned as his fixation with The Wiggles grew. When he was 3 1/2 he was diagnosed with severe autism. One of the first indicators of his Wiggles interest was his amazing ability to observe the tiniest Wiggles logo in a shop, he would cry and reach toward the logo and I would have to stop, search hard to find the logo he had seen so easily, and let him look and touch it for a few minutes before he was happy to move on. He would want to watch Wiggles DVDs everyday, and would spend hours standing on our bed, watching his reflection in our big mirror as he performed the actions for "Everybody Clap". Every night was a crazy show as my husband and I sang and danced "Hot Potato" to keep our little guy happy and distracted enough to eat dinner. Ethan learned colours thanks to his fascination with The Wiggles. 

After a while we realized we could use his interest in The Wiggles to teach him concepts, work on his speech and language, motivate him and engage him. When we was 4 1/2 I wrote a letter to The Wiggles, explaining how much they had helped him learn and that his interest in them had been an important learning tool and motivator for him.  Following receipt of the letter, we were invited to come and meet the Wiggles prior to a concert...the joy and amazement on Ethan's face when he first caught a glimpse of them was priceless and unforgettable...and led to an even stronger interest in them!

Mr Squiggle. An Australian children's television favourite since 1959. His assistant in this photograph is Miss Rebecca.

Ethan's next major  - and still continuing - interest was Mr Squiggle. His grandfather had found a Mr Squiggle toy at a garage sale and bought it for Ethan. Ethan immediately fell in love with his new toy, and Mr Squiggle accompanies us everywhere. Ethan had always loved drawing and when I showed him You Tube clips of the old Mr Squiggle shows, he was enthralled and even more smitten with his new friend. He sets Mr Squiggle up with a blackboard and makes him draw pictures.
Ethan and Mr Squiggle have drawn a monster
See; Mr Squiggle has his glasses on too!
Over time Mr Squiggle has become a great tool to help Ethan cope with challenging situations such as doctor or dentist visits...he seems to find comfort in having his little friend come along. 
Often Mr Squiggle will have a turn first, making it easier for Ethan to face these situations. Recently Ethan sustained a broken tooth which has required many dentist appointments and Mr Squiggle has been a faithful companion, helping Ethan to cope.  
The Dentist "get" Ethan's passion- she drew this.

Ethan's interests are all encompassing... 
and instead of trying to get rid of his "obsessions" we have focused on using his interests and passions to help him learn, motivate him, and help him face the challenges this overwhelming world sometimes presents.


My little boy teaches me so much everyday and has helped me to see life from a different, much more interesting perspective. Along the way he has helped me rediscover forgotten aspects of my childhood...such as Mr Squiggle! " **
Ethan and his best friend.

UPDATE: The very lovely Miss Rebecca who features on the DVD cover above is actually Rebecca Hetherington, the daughter of the late Norman Hetherington who created Mr Squiggle and friends and "enabled" Mr Squiggle himself for the 40 years that the show ran.
Yesterday she read our blog and wrote to Ethan's Mammy today:

I think my heart might just about burst with love. Thank you Miss Rebecca. We wish your father could meet Ethan too.


**Disclaimer: This editor absolutely adores Mr Squiggle too. Still have my own Mr Squiggle toy. 


Jean said…
I am so glad you've brought this up. My son is almost 9 and still adores his "age inappropriate" Bob the Builder. Luckily, we had an enlightened ST hen he was diagnosed as she advocated absolutely using his obsessions as tools for education. Use the force, Luke! XXX
Popsie said…
Omg! Where would we be without the distraction and torment at times of these special interests? I know my boy was really into the wiggles when he was small, it's currently dr who, all 11 doctors. Just showed him the pic above of the wiggles and although he was non verbal at the time he remembered it and said "it's over now mom" that's his response when he finished an interest and he never rekindles interest in the same thing. I always instinctively used these interests to (a) to give us a break and (b) to teach him what he could learn from them. In the case of the child with Aspergers, he has learned everything from his ability to intensely focus!! This side of autism can be very useful!!
jazzygal said…
At the very young age of 9 months I discovered the power of MTV (he IS his mother's child after all!)to soothe and give much needeed peace. To him as well as us. Of course his 'obsession' was the credited (by family) with his lack of communication. Sigh.

Xbox has been blamed for a lot too. Hence my recent post.

Guess we're on a similar wavelength today?

xx Jazzy
Sharon McDaid said…
Hurrah for obsessions!
Though it was tricky when Ryan was into cuckoo clocks and wanted a genuine Black Forrest clock with weights and NOT the cheap battery powered version I bought from Argos!

The intense interests and passions he's enjoyed have helped his communication and learning and most of all, have made him really happy.

Ethan and Mr Squiggle are adorable together Rebecca's words are so sweet. Kindness like this is the best thing in the world.
Sister Wolf said…
It seems not only ridiculous but mean to deprive your child of the things that fascinate. I know I put up with all my sons obsessions and some were quite weird and annoying. But we also encouraged all his interests, so at 20 he has a highly paid job in softwear development and his own apartment, which he KEEPS CLEAN!!!I say encourage their interests, support the obsessions unless they are dangerous or anti-social.
Hurry Up!

- Blackboard

Upside down, upside down!

- Mr. Squiggle

My Mom used to LOVE Mr. Squiggle when she was little. On his 60th anniversary, which was last year, Mom and I watched Mr. Squiggle together. I have Autism, and sometimes, my obsessions could be unusual. When I was 6, I loved vacuum cleaners and Roary the Racing Car. My parents obviously tried to encourage Roary, as he was more socially acceptable.