Honing Fixations: Using Your Child’s Obsession as a Motivator & Reinforcement for Learning

Honing FixationsIf you ever visit us, the first thing you will notice about my son is his obsession with doors. Ever since he was a little, he loved watching people open and close doors. He eventually learned to sign MORE to make the requests from his spot. Now that he is able to twist the doorknobs himself, he gets his thrills by standing at any door he finds and opening/closing it repeatedly.

Most people find it odd. Most therapists suspect 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.” Children with special needs are known to have these 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 homeschool setting.


An example using a fixation for therapy

My son, who needs assistance to stand and walk, and who only stood at the sofa (as recommended by the PT) 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)
  • weight-bearing
  • 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. As his parents, we are excited to see that he has not only learned to twist a doorknob but that he consequently gained strength in his legs and arms. We are 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 abnormal, after all. 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 academic skills.

How to hone your child’s fixation

1- Acknowledge and accept. Recognize what your 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 your child to play with the object or engage in the obsessive behavior before moving on to the next thing. Rather than fighting him, allow your child to get the fixation out of his system before moving onto a more difficult task such as reading.

3- Tap into the fixation for learning. If your child is fascinated by balls, think about how to use balls in all 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 in order 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 of it, 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. I was completely blown away when I found this.

Does your child have a fixation? Are you working to eliminate it, or are you embracing and nurturing it?

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Honing Fixations: Using Your Child’s Obsession as a Motivator & Reinforcement for Learning

6 Responses

  1. Excellent post!
    I am happy that your son gained so much mobility from you letting him enjoy playing with the door! You have definitely maximized his opportunities for learning also!
    My son enjoys watching the numbers of minute go down on our washing machine. I have found this helpful for him to learn numbers beyond 10 (and counting backwards!). The fact that he stays there for the whole 44 minutes cycle also helps me to make sure he gets a nutritious breakfast heading to school. That is another plus indeed!

    Chantal April 5, 2014 at 7:31 am #
    • Ah ha! Your son can probably recognize numbers until at least 44, Chantal. I love this! Embrace and nurture…

      Gabriella Volpe April 5, 2014 at 8:32 am #
  2. I really enjoyed this post, Gabriella.

    My son loves numbers. He will watch the miles tick on our mini van, the timer count down on the oven, and the time pass on his watch. He counts to himself ALL THE TIME.

    We definitely don’t try to eliminate his fascination with numbers.

    Catherine April 5, 2014 at 7:50 am #
    • Oh, yes! Numbers! Can’t get more academic than that! Just for fun, did you look up the significance/ symbolic nature of numbers? I find it fascinating how different children have difference fixations and wonder what messages they might be giving to the rest of the world who think it odd.

      Gabriella Volpe April 5, 2014 at 8:30 am #
  3. Well done Gabriella… very well done!! Absolutely love how you are learning from your son and using it to maximize his learning. Interesting article also on the symbolism of what doors might mean. Very interesting, all of it. Thank you.

    Suzanne April 6, 2014 at 10:47 pm #
    • I knew YOU would especially find the symbolism fascinating, Suzanne! Isn’t that something? Thank you for your comment here.

      Gabriella Volpe April 7, 2014 at 7:45 am #