One of the most fascinating things about children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is their obsessions or special interests. My son Michael has had numerous obsessions and preoccupations with objects since he was a toddler. It was these special interests that first alerted me to the possibility that he may have autism.
When he was about 2 years old he developed an intense interest in watching things that would spin. Particularly fans and the wheels on overturned bikes or toy trucks. Kids with ASD often don’t play with toys in the way other kids do. They investigate the separate components, often studying one part of a toy for hours on end. They can have restricted imaginative play.
Michael also loved to turn light switches on and off. Now some kids might do this a few times but Michael would go through the whole house with a stool, so he could reach the switch, and repeatedly turn it on and off. He wouldn’t stop until I made him and then would have a tantrum of massive proportions. Sometimes it was just easier to let him turn those switches on and off. My husband would come home from work to find the house lit up like a Christmas tree.
Once I took Michael to our GP and he quickly disappeared into another room while I was distracted. He managed to find the main light switchboard and turned off the lights to the whole surgery. When you are obsessed with something, nothing gets in your way.
Why the attraction to light switches? I think it may have something to do with the predictability. You flick the switch, the light turns on. You flick it again, the light turns off . A very satisfying level of control if you are living in the chaotic world which is autism.
Michael’s next obsession was with moving water. He would constantly look for taps to turn on so he could watch the water flow. When he was nearly three we took Michael and Tessa to Kingscliff, where my sister Lisa lived. We thought it was a bit too cold to go for a swim but Michael thought otherwise so we let him play in the shallows. After a while we made him come out but he went ballistic with rage. We had to carry him screaming and shouting all the way back to the house. I put that little episode in my poem Message to Michael. It was during that week long holiday that I was sure that Michael had autism.
Why get obsessed with water? Well everyone knows how relaxing it can be to watch or listen to running water such as in a fountain or stream. Kids with ASD are very stressed, most of the time. Obsessions generally develop from anxiety, unless of course it is an obsession to something like Bob Dylan music, which is just good taste. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is categorised as an Anxiety Disorder in the psychiatric text books. If you deal with the anxiety the obsession will reduce or disappear. If you try to suppress an obsession, without dealing with the underlying anxiety, it will manifest in a different way. Beware the pop-up effect!
It is very difficult to reduce the anxiety that ASD kids experience and sometimes you just have to let them have their obsession, or let them obsess in the privacy of their bedroom or at home after school. Often therapists use the obsession as a reward as part of behaviour modification programs.
Another water related obsession, and one that was particularly funny, was Michael’s obsessions with toilets. His father used to work as a plumber so it’s not that surprising. Wherever we went Michael would go straight to the toilet to see what it looked like. He wouldn’t use it, he just wanted to have a good look at the workings of the toilet. His special education teacher would shake her head as he ran towards the bathroom to investigate. He did that every day for the entire school year, plus turning the taps on.
He would also get very upset if anything about the toilet changed. For instance, my friend Shelley started using a new clip-on toilet cleaner, and he didn’t like that at all. He also had a tantrum when Tessa accidently dropped a toilet roll into the toilet. When Michael went to the early intervention centre AEIOU they made him a book full of pictures of toilets. It was called ‘Michael’s toilet book’ and when he was very stressed they would let him look at the pictures. We still have that book.
Michael’s obsessions have become more sophisticated since the early years. At various stages he has had special interests in aeroplanes (Spitfires), rubbish trucks, rubbish bins, recycling and the solar system. I will write about these obsessions another time.