Paying Closer Attention When my Autistic Son Goes on Endlessly About Yu-Gi-Oh
Brief description of the situation in which to improve attention
The situation in which I would like to improve my attention span is when my son Bobby, who is 17 years old and autistic, speaks to me about his obsession-to-end-all-obsessions, Yu-Gi-Oh, not out of any particular desire to learn or hear about Yu-Gi-Oh but because I have waited for so many years to have my son engage me in conversation. If I’m not willing to listen to him talk about he wants to discuss, I can’t then use his love of Yu-Gi-Oh to engage him in dialogue.
Factors that influence attention when performing this task and why they are of influence
The main reason I have difficulty attending to these conversations is my lack of interest in Yu-Gi-Oh itself. My eyes begin to glaze over when Bobby begins to discuss it. The second problem I have is Bobby’s perseveration on the topic; if allowed he will drone on and on, repeating himself several times. The third reason I have difficulty attending to these conversations is Bobby’s tendency to initiate them when I am in the middle of doing another task, such as trying to write a discussion post for class or grading papers.
Three things that can be done to increase attention when engaged in the situation
Because Bobby’s obsession with Yu-Gi-Oh spans at least five years and his overall obsession with similar types of card games extends back well over a decade, I have become habituated to his lengthy discussions concerning the games. Sternberg (2006) defines habituation as a gradual reduction in attention to stimuli one becomes accustomed to. I need to take conscious control and dishabituate from it. When Bobby begins talking to me and I hear something referencing Yu-Gi-Oh, I automatically tune-out; I need to consciously choose to turn in. I’ll need to work on my motivational state and see it as an opportunity to listen to the undercurrents beneath Bobby’s discussion and work actively to turn these one-sided conversations into a true dialectic that encompasses more than a superficial cartoon and card game. The themes within the Yu-Gi-Oh-verse allow for the opportunity to discuss bravery, cowardice, compassion, the nature of true friendship, and what it means to stand up and fight for the ideals one believes in.
According to Okon-Singer, Tzelgov, and Henik (2007), the processing of emotionally-charged stimuli is an automatic process that first requires spare attentional resources. Although I have built up an emotional reaction to my son’s discussions of Yu-Gi-Oh which could be argued to be a negative reaction, when he begins to talk to me about it, if I am fully engaged in what I am doing, I tend not to notice him and so miss much of the conversation. It also doesn’t help matters that he will stand fifteen feet outside the computer room and talk in a soft voice without attempting to make eye contact so that he has not first made sure he has my attention. Add to that his tendency to talk to himself and it is easy to miss when he is attempting to engage me in conversation. How to counteract this will require retraining Bobby and me. Bobby needs to remember to come closer, within five feet or so, say my name or otherwise engage my attention, and then talk to me. I need to work to eliminate my negative feelings towards Yu-Gi-Oh and the underlying feeling that this perseveration gets in the way of Bobby attending to what I consider to be more important “real-world” things. If nothing else, taking some deep breaths, listening for a set amount of time to Yu-Gi-Oh dominated conversation before redirecting the conversation to other topics would benefit both Bobby and me.
A feature of autism is the lack of eye-contact (American Psychiatric Association, 2000); similarly, Ledley and Heimberg (2006) note that socially-anxious people “divert attention away from faces” and may appear to lack social skills (p. 759). In this aspect, the avoidance of looking at other people, I believe a commonality is shared between individuals with autism and individuals with social anxiety (from simply shyness all the way to social phobias), although the reasoning behind the behaviors may not be shared. However, the behavioral training to alter this behavior should be similar if not identical. Using the Yu-Gi-Oh discourses by Bobby as an opportunity to work on him maintaining sustained eye contact would facilitate my better attending his soliloquies. *We have redefined this; fluency and turn taking now dominate. Feeling comfortable while talking is also important. Society's preference for eye contact is something that I believe my children should understand and work on, but not at the cost of being in pain or overwhelmed or unable to think. The nice thing about being open to learning is that as new information becomes available, approaches can be altered that accommodate the new information.*
Final Thoughts on Bobby and Yu-Gi-Oh
Although I see these Yu-Gi-Oh ramblings as frustrating episodes, I do not think Bobby notices that frustration. He is not attempting to engage me in conversation so much as he is choosing to carry out these ramblings in my vicinity. As long as I give a cursory nod every so often and give him an occasional mutter of assent that a particular card is way powerful, he seems quite content to ramble on until I tell him it’s time to move on to something else. I am the one who finds it frustrating to have him so close and yet still so far away; if I can use these ramblings as a way to direct his attention and focus to the present and real world, then the attentional effort on my part will be worth it. If I can’t redirect him, then I at least will know I tried; the trick is to do it without causing him frustration. *I no longer find them frustrating, as an additional three years of listening have habituated me out of that; plus if I see he's fixing to begin a lengthy discourse and his sisters aren't available, I tell him he'll have to listen to me read several research based blogs to him, since fair is fair. Amazing how often he elects to talk about something else instead!*
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). Arlington, VA: Author.
Ledley, D., & Heimberg, R. (2006). Cognitive vulnerability to social anxiety.
Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 25(7), 755-778. Retrieved September
13, 2007, from PsycINFO database.
Okon-Singer, H., Tzelgov, J., & Henik, A. (2007). Distinguishing Between Automaticity
and Attention in the Processing of Emotionally Significant Stimuli. Emotion, 7(1),
147-157. Retrieved September 13, 2007, from PsycARTICLES database.
Sternberg, R. (2006). Cognitive psychology (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson