Don’t Go Down The Rabbit Hole
The Rabbit Hole for Verbal Individuals
It is common in autism, for verbal individuals to start talking about something that may seem unrelated to a conversation. They go down the “rabbit hole” and we end up going there, too. The conversation stops and the interaction ends, or the person with autism monopolizes the conversation. When this happens we don’t always see the connection that the person with autism has made, and they never get to practice elaborating on a topic to keep the interaction going successfully.
What you can do:
Start a conversation and when your child, student, or friend starts to go down a “rabbit hole” into a special interest or tangent, help them relate it back to the topic at hand. Politely ask your conversation partner how they would like to be guided back (for example, a signal like a touch or a hand up). The tricky part is that you, as this person’s guide, MUST keep the main topic or goal in mind while gently, kindly, and firmly steering the topic back. This is NOT a time to shame, stop, or otherwise punish someone for going off topic! This is an opportunity to help them (and you) connect the dots back to a successful conversation.
Example: I have a wonderful friend who used to interject songs he suddenly thought of in the middle of a conversations, regardless of their relation (or lack thereof) to the subject being discussed. People would often ask him about these songs or artists and the conversation would divert to this new topic, never returning to the initial subject. While this might be enjoyable at times, it can become repetitive and not conductive to learning about the other people involved in the conversation.
Now, when he brings up a song I offer him the opportunity to share why he thought of it within our current conversation and help him relate it back to what we were discussing previously. It might look like this:
I say “imagine doing this,” during a conversation about employment, he might interject the song title “Imagine” by John Lennon. We both enjoy thinking of that song and then get back to our conversation about employment opportunities. I don’t assume he doesn’t want to talk about the opportunities, I just assume that he is like the rest of us and thinks about other things from time to time while listening. He just needs a little more practice returning to the topic, and avoiding going down the rabbit hole.
The Rabbit Hole with Nonverbal Individuals
We, neurotypicals, actually think about many different things when we are exploring, managing, and engaged with our environment. We focus, unfocus, and think about this and that while we return to the task at hand. The ability to multi-task, or shift our attention back and forth between tasks, varies from person to person.
In autism, we often see individuals who are already engaged with something suddenly shift to something new, either an interest they can physically see, or a new topic within their own thinking. I call this sudden shift going down the rabbit hole. When this happens, the play and exploration stops, the interaction ends, or they monopolize the activity in a repetitive manner. They never get practice elaborating on the activity while maintaining interaction or sustaining exploration!
What you can do:
Practice! Start an activity and when your child, student, or friend starts to go down a rabbit hole, either physically or in their thinking about something else (a special interest or other tangent), help them relate it back to the topic or play at hand. Demonstrate how it can help elaborate what you are doing. This is an art and it you will have to practice it.
The tricky part is keeping the main goal in mind and kindly, gently, and firmly steering their engagement back to it. This is not a time to shame, stop, or otherwise punish someone for changing the play or interaction! This is an opportunity to help them (and you) connect the dots back to a successful exploration or interaction.
I know a boy who is verbal but his auditory processing and articulation make it extremely challenging for him to verbally communicate. He adores finding out the manufacturer of different toys and materials he plays and interacts with. I had a bunch of toy cars and a track, so we began to play together. I was so excited to create a big, amazing track to race our cars down, but he became quite fixated on each individual car. He flipped them over to look at every manufacturer’s mark on the bottom. I could have followed him down the rabbit hole, sitting with the bag of cars and studying each one; instead, my adjustment was to guide him, looking at the bottom of each car as I handed it to him, so he could study and then share what he saw. After that I guided him in putting the car on the track.
Guiding him back to the activity required my gentle and kind insistence that he could look but, in order to get another car, he would have to collaborate with me first. When he couldn’t go down the rabbit hole he tried to leave the game, then I used my body language and clear boundaries to keep him engaged.*
When we started the activity his highlight was looking at the bottom of each car, but as I guided him into fuller and more complex play, he became more engaged and the highlight shifted to playing together on the track we created, ending when we built and crashed into obstacles at the of the track.
*These techniques, and many more, are covered in our other courses. Click here for more information.