Autism FAQ: How can I help my child get “unstuck”?

“Mom?” Matthew asked, “Where is the closest airport?”

“Oakland,” I answered with a sigh.

“Where is the next airport?”

“San Francisco. Then San Jose, Morgan Hill…”

“Stop!” Matthew wailed,”I need to ask you first.”

Matthew was 10 years old, and his obsession with airports was wearing me out. I was only allowed to stop answering him when the phone or the doorbell interrupted us.

He was stuck.


Looking back, I believe that Matthew wasn’t intentionally trying to drive me (and everybody else) crazy. I think he was trying to connect, and his fascination with airplanes and airports was the only way he knew how.

I asked parents and teachers on my facebook autism forum offer their tips:

How can we help our kids get “unstuck”?



When one of my students gets stuck on a particular topic, especially one that is scaring her, we print out a picture from Google images and then tear it up. That gets the thought out of her head.


Jessica Roe


I usually say, “Is this a big deal or a little deal?” and she usually says, “a little deal” – then I say, “If it’s a little deal then we’re not going to worry about it” – then, of course, redirection and bribing if needed.

Tracy Donohue

I usually just engage him a bit in what he wants to talk about. I don’t want to cut him off and have him feel what he has to say, whatever the subject, isn’t worthy of being heard. Then, once I know he’s told me everything I just change the subject to different things.

Kris Scalaro


Redirection never works with my son. I use this formula:

1.acknowledge the issue

2.parallel yourself somehow, let your child know of an instance when something similar took hold of your thoughts

3. confirm that the issue will be resolved.

This actually works with ANY situation and anybody, but when I started really doing this with my son, it helped him instantly. It was like a light bulb went off in both of us. Keep following 1, 2, 3 until your child gets unstuck.

Linda Pasqualone Francese


Stuck on a conversation topic (many times a day here): “one more sentence and then I’ll listen to more when done with homework, but now it’s time to do this other thing. Write a note in a notebook if it helps to remember.” I listen intently to that one sentence. It gets the pressing subject out of his head, gives comfort that his conversations are important, and sometimes he forgets to get back to it!

I ask questions when he returns to the subject to get him more into conversational speech rather than just dictating facts. I listen intently and keep my promise to do so. (not always easy!)

Karri Gunnerson Jose


I’ve had very little success in stopping an obsessive train of thought once it starts! Now, I typically set a timer and say, “I will listen/talk about this for x minutes, then I’m done.” Once the timer rings I just keep repeating “I’m not talking about this anymore with you now”. Which 7 out of 10 times results in a meltdown–then I move on to meltdown strategies.

Lee Anne Klopp Owens


Try joining him and sharing ideas. Adapt your pacing/timing and affect to connect. I find most kids tend to get “stuck” due to a breakdown in comprehension and/or motor planning. Emotions also drive their ability to work through these moments. Maybe modeling the task he is doing and carefully expanding would also be helpful.

Sarah Weiler

I’d love to hear from you. How do you help your child get “unstuck”?


Read the first three chapters of my book HERE.

You’ll be hooked

Available at your local library or HERE.



About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


  1. Marla says

    How about suggestions on getting a non-verbal autistic unstuck from a ritual. Breaking in can cause from frustration, but sometimes rituals can get so extensive they truly take over.

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