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Fixations vs Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Children with Autism

Fixation, or hyper-focusing on a specific interest, is a recognized feature of autism. Fixations, along with other features or symptoms of autism like repetitive behaviors and cognitive inflexibility, may appear from the outside to be symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD, however, is not itself a symptom of autism. That said, OCD is a common comorbid anxiety disorder—that is, a separate disorder that often appears alongside autism spectrum disorder—affecting an estimated 17% of individuals with autism.

Fixations or Intense Interests

Most common in high-functioning people with autism, fixations often manifest as intense focus surrounding a certain topic or area of interest. For example, a person with autism may obsessively practice a particular skill, or may read every book and article written about a certain subject.

Fixations may be harmful when they interfere with a person’s life, but they can also be a positive feature of autism. Many high-functioning individuals with autism have turned their fixations into successful careers and made notable impacts in their fields.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD differs from fixations associated with autism in that behavior associated with OCD is compulsive and engaged in to relieve anxiety. Unlike fixations, OCD behavior is not associated with interests, but rather associated with unwanted thoughts and feelings.

While OCD and autism are two distinct disorders, and the link between them is not fully understood, ABA therapy for autisms employs similar strategies as those used to treat OCD, and may be effective in treating both conditions.

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