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How to Navigate Affinities and Fascinations

Feb 6, 2020
Adam Dreyfus
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We here at AnswersNow get quite a few questions from parents about their child’s ‘fascinations’ usually defined as: the movie/show/cartoon/toy that they cannot stop talking about/playing with. The clinical definition, as found in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual - Version 5) is: 

Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).

For many parents, these affinities are sources of considerable stress and can feel like an endless battle over their children watching the same videos over and over or saying the same sentences over and over (usually from a movie or a song). One of the parents who has really helped bring the idea that “affinities are pathways into your child’s world” into understanding is Ron Suskind. He is the parent of Owen and author of “Life, Animated” which details his family's journey with Owen. 

According to Suskind, his son was locked in his own world and mostly spent his time watching Disney movies. What he and his family discovered is that they could use his affinity for Disney movies to connect deeply with him and draw him out of his highly restricted behaviors. 
This phenomenon is well understood by skilled therapists and has been used for years to help reach children. A simple way to think of it is: Instead of resisting/fighting their affinities, turn into them and use them to connect with your child. 

In my own practice I’m always thrilled when I come across a new client who has an affinity. One of the first questions I usually get from the parents is, “Can you make it stop?” The hard answer is yes, but in doing so I would do harm to the therapeutic relationship I need to foster to be successful. I explain that I am going to meet their child where he or she is at and use the affinity to connect, communicate and care for their child. 

My own first experience of the power of affinities was very early in my career. I was working as an in-home ABA therapist with a 4-year-old boy who could talk but only spoke in phrases from “Thomas the Tank Engine” books and videos. His utterances didn’t seem to bear any relation to what was actually happening around him and appeared to be largely self-soothing. I read and watched countless “Thomas” books and videos with him. One day he looked directly at me and said, “My boiler is full.” In Thomas World, Thomas says this when he’s not feeling well. I smiled at him and said, “Your tummy is upset?” He smiled at me. It was our first conversation. I was in his world. Using his Thomas-language I slowly worked with him until you could have a fairly normal conversation with him. 

My advice is unequivocal. Turn into affinities, and do not try to control them (or make them go away.) This doesn’t mean you just let your kid watch preferred videos as much as they want. It means:

  • Listen and learn: Presume they are communicating something when they say whatever they are saying. (Sidenote: It’s AWESOME they’re talking). They may initially be directing all of their talking to themselves but if you respectfully engage them, you’ll find they let you in. This does not mean just asking them questions about what they’re saying but doing things like:

                - Repeating back what they said 

                - Commenting on what they said

                - Narrating what you’re ‘thinking’ as you watch/read the materials

  • Parallel engagement: Imagine you’re watching a preferred show. You wouldn’t want someone constantly interfering with your viewing pleasure. But it’s entirely appropriate to sit side-by-side and make comments. Once they’re used to that it’s okay to stop the video and comment or ask questions. Definitely sing along or act out favorite scenes. It’s okay to look silly!
  • Use the preferred items in other ways: If your child likes Thomas then I would recommend incorporating that into instruction. Count Thomas trains. Sequence Thomas trains. Learn colors using Thomas trains. The list is endless and, rather than intensifying the interest, leaning into the affinities will reduce the ‘charge’ around them. 

Lastly, once you’re successful you can introduce new books, videos and’ll be onto new affinities.

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