Obsessive much?

Guest post by Patty of Pancakes Gone Awry

When my son, Danny was diagnosed with high functioning autism a year and a half ago, the doctor asked if he had any "special interests." I knew what he was asking; I had heard and read plenty about "passions" or "obsessions" or whatever you want to call them. I know they are relatively common among children with autism.

At the time, I couldn't really identify one specific passion of Danny's. And to be honest, I was a bit relieved to know that there was one autism criterion that my son did not meet.

Shortly after that doctor's visit, Danny discovered Legos, and our whole world has been engulfed in a cyclone of those pesky multi-colored blocks. To say that Legos have become Danny's "special interest" would be a gross understatement.

The kid is completely, 100% obsessed.

He talks about them, plays with them, reads about them and surfs the Internet to find more Legos to covet. His face lights up like a Christmas tree when he sees the Legos logo or hears someone talking about them.

One time, while walking home from school on a sunny day, Danny asked me, "Wouldn't it be cool if when it rained, Legos came from the sky instead of rain?" That pretty much sums up his attitude towards Legos.

I'm quite certain that my son thinks about Legos a good portion of the day. In fact, judging from his conversations, I would have to surmise that Danny thinks about Legos at least 80% of the time.

The other 20%? Well, that would be when the kid is sleeping.

Not only can Danny spend a great deal of time talking about the wonders of Legos, he assumes that the rest of the world's population is equally smitten with the things. When someone's birthday is coming up, Danny wants to buy that person Legos. It doesn't matter if we're shopping for his 65-year-old grandma or his 1-year-old baby cousin, Danny is convinced that Legos are the perfect gift.

If he's not playing with Legos, then he's surfing lego.com, looking at all their products and playing one of their many games. Other times, he reads Lego books, including his newest favorite:
The Lego Star Wars Visual Dictionary. My mother thought we were crazy buying that for him. "It's a dictionary, Patty," she said. "Will he really read it?"

Oh, yes, yes he will.

To be honest, I have struggled a bit with how to handle Danny's development of a special interest. Although I speak of his love of all things Legos fondly, I haven't always felt this way. I have worried that this obsession makes him somehow more "autistic" and less social. I have been concerned that it would hamper his ability to fit in.

And I wondered what I should do about it. Should I try to help him branch out more? Limit his access to the Legos, so he plays with other toys or talks about other topics? Should I just encourage it and enjoy the fact that my son can quietly entertain himself for hours with his new interest?

I'm still not entirely sure what the correct approach is, but here's how we have been treating it so far.

We have used Legos a lot as a bargaining tool. Danny knows that before he can go on lego.com, he needs to finish his homework, chores and therapy. He also knows that if he misbehaves badly, lego.com is likely to be taken away.

When we started iLs (Integrated Listening Systems) therapy with the kids for their SPD, Danny was less than enthusiastic. So, I we bought him a special Legos set that he can only play with when he's doing his iLs therapy. After he's done the exercises, he continues to listen to the therapeutic music while be plays with his Legos. Before we know it, Danny has completed his hour-long therapy session, with nary a complaint!

Bil has discovered that Legos are a good bonding tool. For some reason, Danny sometimes has a rocky relationship with his dad. Though Bil is a fantastic father, he and Danny butt heads a lot. I think a large part of that is due to the fact that because Bil is not home all day, he doesn't always follow the routine. This tends to annoy Danny who often subscribes to the idea that there is only one correct way to do things. Since Bil is not aware that I cut up Danny's hotdog before microwaving it, for example, there have been some major upsets in our house when Bil changed the routine.

Playing games on lego.com has proven to be an immense source of fun for both Dan and Bil. It's the one time of the day when Bil is not forcing Danny to do his homework or therapy or chores. They can just relax and play and enjoy one another's company. I have seen a marked difference in their relationship. At times, Danny will ask me to join them in their games, but I refuse. I really think they need something special that I am not a part of.

We have looked for ways to make Legos a more social activity. Legos are not exactly the most social toy out there. Danny can spend long stretches of time building structures without talking to another soul. Social skills are already a difficult area of development for Danny. As with most kids with autism, socialization does not come naturally for him, and sometimes he just avoids it altogether.

I knew that if I could combine Legos with socialization, it would be a winning combination for my son. Imagine my delight when I discovered Lego board games. Santa brought Danny the Minotaurus game, which requires that you build the board and then play a game with up to 4 people. Playing it as a family has become a favorite pastime.

I'm also planning on throwing a Legos playdate for Danny where he gets to invite a couple friends from school over to play Legos and eat fun snacks. We'll see how that goes.

I don't know if the way we have handled the Lego obsession would meet with the "experts'" approval, but it's been working for us. Though Danny is still as interested as ever in Legos, he will take long breaks to go to the park and meet friends to play. He hasn't been getting angry when we make him turn off the computer. He may always be in love with those blocks, but I feel like he is slowly gaining some balance in this area. Maybe it's because he knows we respect his interest and often join with him in playing. Maybe it's because we don't make a big deal about trying to "cure" his obsession.

Who knows? One thing I can say for sure, though, is that once I let go of the stigma in my mind, I was better able to see how we could use Danny's special interest to our advantage. And I have been more relaxed so I can enjoy this interest with Dan and recognize that it's not the special interest that's the enemy here.

*****I was not compensated in any way by Legos brand or lego.com, but if any Legos execs are out there, I sure wouldn't turn down some major discounts on those little blocks. There's a 7-year-old boy here who would experience paroxysms of joy if his mom were able to purchase more Legos. Oh, and also, if you could come up with some kind of robot that cleans up Legos, or if you could just magnetize the blasted things, I'd be forever grateful. I'm sick to death of picking those blocks up in every crevice of my home.


My name is Andy. said...

Great post! I too have a Lego-obsessed boy. Not to help fuel yours, but have you tried the Lego download software where you can design your own sets and even order them?

Lizbeth said...

Love it! They have Lego fruit sancks if you want a cool snack for the playdate. I think WalMart has them...

nancy said...

I think your doing a great job! Using them as a reward after his work is done, and taking them away as punishment, and especially playing with him versus drawing attention to it and making him feel self conscious. Kids are kids and all of them have "obsessions" of their own. My sons changes every few months! You know right when we think he's happy with his new toys, flash cards, bed set and dvds . . . lol!

Although the experts books are great each child is different and you know your son better than anyone else and it sounds like your doing fantastic! The fact that he knows theres a time and place for them and he doesn't "freak" when time is over is wonderful!

There is a new Lego land opening in Fl, (I think its where Cypress gardens once was) and the original in Ca. The Mall of America has a huge Lego store with walls made of buckets of legos and tables out front for all the kids to play together while the parents rest for a few minutes, with 20ft tall Lego sculptures surrounding the store! If theres one close to you mayb as a huge reward you could take him so he can play with some other Lego fanatics.

Just another Mom said...

Great post and naturally hits very close to home. I wanted to share with you that our Autism Specialist holds Lego Club once a month where her clients can come and build together. She has purchased sets where the children in her social skills group therapy get to build one set together taking turns. And last but not least she allows them to play the new lego board games as part of the turn taking piece of therapy. Our psychatrist encourages us to use our sons special interst in exacly the way that you have described. I know that you are very much on the right track in using your sons love of Legos in the best ways possible!

throckles said...

Have you checked around for Lego Clubs? We have to different libraries here that offer Lego Club and one of them also offers a Lego Game night. The Lego club is so popular that you have to call and register each month. The one we went to had a 6 big tubs of legos and 30 kids. They had a theme that the kids could follow or not and a drawing for a book. The downside is the kids can't take their creations with them. However, they put what they build on a table and then afterwards the parents come in and look and can take pictures. Some kids choose to build together and others choose to build on their own.

Btw, I think you are doing a great job balancing things. :)

Cassandra Sines said...

My son has many obsessions as well, one being legos. Right now his biggest and longest obsession is bowling! He builds bowling alleys in the house, plays bowling on the Wii and wants to go bowling constantly!!!!

There is a travelling Lego sculpture exhibit. Here is the link - http://www.brickartist.com/ - and we're planning on going when it comes to Topeka this summer.

Gavin Bollard said...

You usually can't suppress a special interest, you can just drive it below the radar - and that's NOT a good thing.

There are kids out there who develop a special interest on genitals or faeces, so believe me... Lego is a good one.

My kids are lego obsessed and we use them for all kinds of things. My kids sometimes (often) fight over lego - especially when my younger son's things break. I assigned his older brother the task of teaching him how to make things stronger by building across cracks.

It was an amazing bit of interaction to watch. Rather than stunting social growth, lego can promote it.

Megan said...

Caroline goes from one all consuming obsession to another all of the time. Right now it is a band, but it has been a myriad of things. She will obsess about things to the point of living in almost a fantasy world and ignore the responsibilities (school) right in front of her. Drives us nuts!

Louise Masin Sattler said...

I LOVE LEGOS! And as a psychologist I know that Legos can actually be turned in to sneaky academic "tools" with ease. Try placing sticky paper on some Duplos or Legos with numbers and math symbols.. Use them to teach addition, subtraction and counting. Also, Legos with letters can be easily be connected to make words or words to make sentences. If one must obsess on a toy at least give it a "spin" to help promote the acquisition of other skills, too.

Just say'in.. thanks for a great blog read!

Patty O. said...

Thanks for all these great suggestions. It's nice to be assured that perhaps we are on the right track with this whole lego obsession! I'm definitely going to try some of these ideas.

And Gavin, thanks for the perspective! I'll take legos over feces any day of the week!

Homeschoolin' Mom said...

Oh how I can relate! My son has been obsessed with legos all of his life, just the different "adventure series" as they come out. We started with lego star wars, then indiana jones, harry potter, now bionicle. Yeah, they quit making the Bionicle serious about 6 months before my son found one on clearance while shopping and became absolutely "engaged" in Bionicle.

Just as Gavin pointed out, it could be alot worse. Maybe our kids will be the next lego developer or CEO of Lego....one never knows, we just have to enjoy the ride.

Nancy Cadjan said...

My son is also Lego obsessed. I find them in every nook and cranny and they have been washed many times in the washer. Two ideas: 1) You can buy bulk Legos on eBay and they come with parts from lots of different sets from kids who are done with their Legos--this leads to a lot of imaginative building. 2) Look for a First Lego League in your area. These are teams that build Lego robots to solve a problem. I am trying to get one going in my area--it would help the social interaction.

We are dealing with the SPD issue now finally after 9 years and Lego really was one of the best things we ever did.