Autism and Hoarding

For individuals with autism, the world of interpersonal relationships can be strange and harrowing.

Uncomfortable on teams, the camaraderie of sports often eludes them. A simple thing such as recess at school is fraught with peril. Because it’s difficult for them to find solace in the company of others, children on the autism spectrum often turn to creating collections as a source of emotional comfort. The collections are often centered around their special interests and each item holds a memory dear to them of when and where they got it. While their obsessive attachment to objects can create a disharmonious environment, Dr. Tony Attwood points out that it is not the classical, rampant hoarding of often worthless items that can lead to hazardous living circumstances.

If your home is being overwhelmed by your child’s things, Dr. Attwood suggests a tender, restrained approach. Think of asking your child to get rid of his stuff like someone asking you to burn your family photo album. The best strategy is to cull out what you can and keep a specific area for collected items. You might convince your child to rotate his or her collections in the spirit of maintaining their own personal museum, thereby cataloguing and retiring what could be stress-inducing clutter.

Hoarding is another interesting case in which individuals with autism engage in an activity for slightly different reasons than their neurotypical counterparts do. It calls to mind autism eating disorders that arise out of sensory issues or the embracing of the science of diet as a special interest. Behavior problems in the classroom are more-often-than-not an expression of overwhelming anxiety as opposed to conduct disorder. 

It’s important to view these problems through the prism of autism, because it always reveals deeper truths and sounder solutions.

12 Responses to Autism and Hoarding

  1. Debbie K. says:

    My son is 10 1/2. We’ve gone thru obsessions with Baby Einstein toys, Hot Wheels cars, monster trucks, Star Wars, Pokemon and his current obsession, anything and everything related to Mario and Sonic characters. When he was younger, every time we’d go to a movie, he’d insist that we had to buy the soundtrack and go to McDonald’s/Burger King for EVERY toy related to the movie (he was never interested in the food, only the toys). His room is a mess, but he won’t let me get rid of anything. He has “displays” that he doesn’t want anyone to touch. I’ve often joked that he’s going to grow up to be a hoarder!

  2. Susan says:

    I know what you mean. I ended up trying to remove things from my son’s room and storing it in the basement. If he noticed I’d quickly reassure him that we still had it and it could be brought back. If he didn’t notice, so much the better. Good shelving would help keep things in sight but out of the way.


  3. Debbie K. says:

    When he was smaller, I used to hate letting him watch videos of when he was a baby. He would see a toy in one of the videos and become obsessed with finding it in his room (and become upset if we no longer had it!). When he watched the Baby Einstein movies, he’d make me pause the movie so he could go find the matching toy in his room (we did have several of them), and then play with that toy along with the video. If we’d passed the section with the toy, he’d insist that we “back it UP!!!” He’d never understand if we were watching a live show and couldn’t “back it UP!!!” Meltdown-making! We used to joke that he was our OCD boy. Now we know!

  4. William says:

    That sounds familiar. Over the years I’ve had many different collections. My solution was to rotate through them. I’d have one up for a while then put it in storage in favor of another. Eventually I found a combination that I like and made a more or less permanent collection. I still buy other things from time to time, though I exercise a lot of restraint collectionwise mainly by having high standards, which really cuts down on the options. My main collection now is books, which I don’t mind spending money on, particularly from library sales and on other sales.

  5. Susan says:

    Debbie, the “back it up” tale sounds funny, but I’m sure was harrowing.

    William,your rotating collection solution is a good one (and about all a parent can do on behalf of a collection loving child). You can’t go wrong with books!

  6. Heather E. Sedlock says:

    I have autism and a diagnosis of OCD. What you wrote makes a lot of sense to me. The doc did tell me the COD was from PTSD and after my diagnosis of autism, I asked that same doc what he thought then. He said “Well, of course it’s from the autism then.” But one word of caution: not everything is due to autism. Not EVERYTHING. Co-mordity is high in autism but not all of the co-occuring issues are secondary to autism. Some might have that second disorder whether or not he or she had autism. But it is definitely true that the reasons behind the “disorder” is different for us.

    I cycle through minimalist living and hoarding. It’s fun!

  7. Susan says:

    That’s a good point about co-morbidity, although the autism still imbues it’s own twist to multiple diagnoses, whichever predominate.


  8. David Berkowitz says:

    One of my sons is and has been obsessive about items to a lesser degree, at 15 he collects wacky packs.
    I am asperger’s collect q bit, but to the obsessive extreme. We are all different.

  9. Susan says:

    I’ve never heard of wacky packs.

    I can retrace my sons’ childhood according to what they were collecting.


  10. Ellie says:

    I have been working with kids on the spectrum for about 5 years now, and recently became a full time nanny for a 12 y/o girl.

    I have seen collecting/hoarding toys before even hoarding glasses of water. But in this case she hoards household items. Kleenex boxes, night lights, dove soap, candles, water bottles, dog toys, ect. If you’re using it she will take it the next day.

    I have recently make a “hoarding shelf” to make it seem what she is doing isn’t a big deal, thinking she will cut down the amounts.

    Any other ideas? I have been wondering if this is a completely unrelated disorder.

  11. Melanie Donus says:

    We are going through a treatment plan for my 11 year old son who has very bad hoarding issues. He hoards DVD’s or anything that is Wiggles. He even taught his twin brother to hoard Baby Einstein things. He was getting a reinforcer DVD every Friday if he got a check all 5 days, but now he has to give back 2 DVD’s to the library every time that he receives a new one. This technique makes the DVD’s less reinforcing so with hope it will eventually go away.

  12. Susan says:

    Sounds like a good strategy.

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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