Parent Worries: Adult Son with Autism Still Obsessed with Barney

May 1, 2015

“My son is 24 and is on the autism spectrum, diagnosed with
PDD-NOS as a child. He works part-time at Home Depot and attends a social-support group called Community Connections twice a week. While he continues to get more involved with the adult world at his job, he comes home and goes into his world of fantasy with Barney or Thomas the Tank Engine. I know this is his comfort zone. But I want him to grow to his full potential. Should I try to start to wean him off these shows?”

Editor’s note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is from renowned autism educator Peter Gerhardt. Dr. Gerhardt, who serves on Autism Speaks’ Family Services Committee, has more than 30 years of experience supporting teens and adults with autism in educational, residential, vocational and community settings.

Thanks for your question. Your concerns and your son’s continued attachment to Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine are not at all unusual.

Commonly, I see great time and effort invested in helping young children with autism develop leisure and play skills. Unfortunately, I see relatively little support provided to help these children continue to expand their leisure activities in an age-appropriate way as they enter their teens and young adulthood.

This can be particularly challenging for adults with autism. As adults, most of us are continually exposed to new leisure and recreational activities through our friends and colleagues. For instance, friends might invite you to join them for a fishing trip, weekend car show or baseball game. Or we may be intrigued to visit a new vacation spot or play after reading about them in the newspaper and then talking about them with friends. And so we try new things we might not do on our own.

Unfortunately, adults with autism are far less likely to encounter this level of exposure to new possibilities for recreation and leisure. At least in part, I think this is why we see so many adults with autism continue to engage heavily in familiar and socially isolating activities – such as watching Barney at home.

In this type of situation, I usually suggest that the adult with autism is allowed to enjoy his or her preferred activity to a controlled degree. The key is to not allow your son’s “comfort zone” time to preclude his exposure to a variety of new options that he might find enjoyable. We call this process “leisure sampling.”

Tap into his special interests
Depending on how communicative your son is, I suggest that you ask him why he likes Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine so much. 

His answer may provide clues to related activities that are less immature and socially isolating. For example, how about a trip to a train museum? Or maybe ride on a commuter train or subway to a ball game, show or park.Tapping into special interests is one of the most effective ways to both connect with someone who has autism and encourage him or her to develop new abilities.

Another option is to try pairing a new activity with one of his favorite videos. For example, with a Barney video playing in the background, the two of you might play a game of checkers. In this way, playing checkers may take on some of the comfortable and familiar feelings your son associates with Barney. Your son may end up with a new – and more-social – favorite activity.

Still, it sounds like your son really likes Barney and Thomas and that he’s liked them for a very long time. So his powerful preference for the Purple Dinosaur may be difficult to change.

Probably the best goal would be to expand is repertoire of interests with a few more activities, while allowing him to continue watching Barney and Thomas in private.

In the meantime, the fact that your son has something in his life that he finds so enjoyable is a good thing. We all need that. Again, your goal is to add a few more enjoyable interests and activities to his days.

Thanks again for reaching out. Please let us know how you and your son are doing in the comment section below or sending us another emailing at

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For more perspective and advice from Dr. Gerhard, see his video below:


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