Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Turning Obsessions Into Strengths.

How I turned Benjamin’s fixation on letters and numbers into a love of art.

Certain attributes are essential to successfully raise a child on the spectrum. You need patience, determination and the ability to remain unfazed when your forearm is used as a Kleenex. Yet, I’m continually discovering that creativity just might be the most important of all attributes to possess.For children on the spectrum, even the most straightforward problem can’t be solved in a conventional way.

For example, to introduce a neuro-typical child to the joys of art, all you’d probably need to do is give them some paper and markers. Mission accomplished: The next Picasso is born.

My son Benjamin, on the other hand, is a little guy who would much rather fill a page with a predetermined sequence of numbers or letters. (Who needs another rainbow next to a smiley sun anyway, right?) While my wife and I appreciate the remarkable focus he puts into selecting each “A” or “4”, we feel he'd really benefit from an outlet that would allow him to discover the power of imagination. We feel he could express his emotions though art, as well. (What could be better for a child with communications challenges?) Since Benjamin’s “art” was little more than an endless sequence of numbers and letters, drawing time was only serving to increase a fixation we were hoping to lessen. That's when I knew I had to get creative.

For Benjamin, my goal was to take his fervent love of listing numbers and letters and use that as a way of fostering, maybe not a love of art, but at least a mild interest.

It worked.

Here’s what I did. I got down to eye level (I think that’s critical) and I told Benjamin we were going to do some fun things with numbers and letters. He was excited about that, of course. I started off with him writing just as he always does. (He likes writing in very straight rows and never wants to deviate.) After he had a few rows done, I requested he draw a letter sideways. He didn’t want to do it at first. But once he was rewarded in the proper way, he eventually didn’t mind. Before long, we were writing numbers and letters backwards, sideways and upside down.

Now it was art time!

We started with a new sheet of paper. I started telling Benjamin to put an “M” here, upside down "7s" there and an “O” and an “1” just about everywhere else. Before long, and unbeknownst to him, Benjamin had created his first masterpiece. Then I said, “Look at the paper, you just drew a picture of yourself!” I wish I had a painting of the look on his face. It was a priceless mix of pride, elation and total surprise. He was so excited, he then created the drawing you see above, complete with monogramed shirt.

To me, success in parenting a child with ASD is all about “creative transitioning.” Progress from point A to point B is almost always accomplished through hard-fought inches, not leaps and bounds. And it often takes an original approach that only you can come up with for your child.Benjamin has really taken to art and now asks to draw ALL THE TIME. While his art work still occasionally consists of assembled letters and numbers, he now uses them much more as a means to create versus being the actual object of focus. He even figured out a “V” makes a great cat ear!

So before you resign yourself to believing your child has a limitation of any kind, I encourage you to get creative and figure out ways to leverage your child’s interests to help them grow and expand their capabilities. You’ll be surprised what hard work and a lot of creativity can accomplish.


  1. i love it richie! keep it coming!

  2. I love your blog. Check out mine at

    We share a common friend. I'll email you.

  3. I'm a mom of a newly diagnosed high-functioning autism/possible aspie/possible NOS.... whatever... I don't care about the label. All I know is that I started sobbing when I read this post because my son is OBSESSED with letters and numbers and that's about it. THANK YOU for looking at this quirk sideways and giving me a new tool for artwork! It is such a relief to know someone else is trying to reach through the same barriers we are. Battle on and know that you both have touched our lives.