Dynamic Duo Series: Fixation
Updated: Mar 23, 2019
I've previously talked about what I call the Autism Dynamic Duo - Vitamin D and Zinc. At the time, I mainly talked about them in terms of their impact on sleep, and only briefly discussed other issues that they can address. This post will be the first in a series in which I go more in depth into those other issues. Today's topic: fixation.
I had my fixations growing up, interests I was obsessed with. My interests were in science. I loved reading science books. I loved dinosaurs. I sound like a typical kid with such interests - but my fixation on them posed its challenges. I remember an incident in my early teens. I was in a carpool on the way home from something, looking out at the night sky. I turned to the other kids and asked, "Do you guys have a favorite nebula?" Astronomy was among my areas of interest, but the question made me cringe later. And I loved, loved, Star Trek. I knew every detail about how the show's fictional technology worked, including being able to explain on the spot how a warp core worked.
All of this posed its challenges for me socially - like the cringe-inducing nebula question. It made conversation hard. I wanted to talk about what I wanted to talk about, and good luck to me if the family conversation wasn't on that topic. Or if it moved on from it by the time I came up with something to say about it. Of course, I still said those things anyway, much to the frustration of my family. I wished I was better at conversation. I remember admiring one of my older brothers in his ease of conversation, especially envying his wit. I marveled at his ability to crack jokes based on whatever was being discussed, wishing I could do the same.
To most parents of autistic children, my story will sound familiar. Obsession or fixation on one particular area of interest is so common in autism, that it's even part of the diagnostic criterion for Autism Spectrum Disorder.
So, what's driving this fixation? What's going on in the brain? Well, as I've described in my introductory post to the Dynamic Duo, it goes back to dopamine. Dopamine is the reward chemical in the brain. It's what gives us the positive reinforcement for activities and helps us enjoy things. In autism, there is a high amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is controlled by a dopamine transporter. Dopamine is either out in circulation and rewarding us for things, or is being held and stored. The dopamine transporter's job is to act like a vacuum, pulling it in and storing it when it's not needed. However, a genetic mutation changes the dopamine transporter, turning it from a vacuum into a leaf blower. That's what's causing the high level of dopamine. It's not that we're making too much of it, but rather that too much of what we have is being circulated. That's what leads to the obsession and fixation on certain interests and behaviors - the brain is being overly rewarded for doing so, And since the different parts of the brain are poorly connected in autism, it can be difficult to direct the enthusiasm for that interest into other areas.
So, what can be done about this? For dopamine, we bring in one half of the Dynamic Duo - zinc. Zinc changes the dopamine transporter back into a vacuum, taking in the excessive dopamine, so that it is back to more normal levels. Lowering the level of dopamine won't erase the interest in the topic a child is fixated on, but it will perhaps make it easier to apply that interest to other areas and expand on it.
Take my childhood interest in Star Trek, for example (don't worry, I'm still a Trekkie at heart). The internet was first becoming really popular in my teens. I sought out communities of Star Trek fans. I sought out Star Trek chat rooms. I eventually found my way into an online game I had never heard of before. An online, text-based role-playing game that the players called simming (short for simulation). In it, each player took the role of a character on a starship, and we took turns contributing to the story in posts in a forum. The character that played the Captain of the starship was the leader of the game and guided the plot. Due to my interest in the technology, I typically chose to be the ship's Engineer. I had stumbled into a marvelous social tool, as it gave me a chance to better learn how to interact with people through the game. It also taught me to be a writer. I've since written half a dozen short stories and even two novels. No, I haven't published them, and don't ask to read the novels - they're kind of terrible. But it did contribute to me becoming an English major, where I graduated Summa Cum Laude. And for those thinking something like Star Trek simming might be good option for your child - unfortunately the golden age for simming has past. While there used to be games like it all over, it has largely died out, thanks to the rise of online gaming.
I doubt I'm the first source you've read on advice on how to expand on a child's fixated interest in a particular topic, so you may have already read or considered advice on how to expand your child's interest. If this idea is new to you, I highly recommend The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin, as she has excellent advice in this area. But I think zinc can help in that effort, making it easier to get a child interested in other things.
Zeliadt, N. (2014, November 19). Diverse dopamine defects found in people with autism. Retrieved February 3, 2019, from https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/diverse-dopamine-defects-found-in-people-with-autism/
Grandin, T., & Panek, R. (2014). The autistic brain. London: Rider Books.