Let me tell you about obsessions!
Let me tell you about obsessions!

One of the most fascinating things about children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is their obsessions or special interests. My son 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.

He also loved to turn light switches on and off. Now some kids might do this a few times but he 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 our son to the 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.

His 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 our two children to Kingscliff, where my sister lived. We thought it was a bit too cold to go for a swim but our son 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. It was during that week long holiday that I was sure that he 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 can be very stressed, much 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 his obsession with toilets. His father used to work as a plumber so it’s not that surprising. Wherever we went our son 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 started using a new clip-on toilet cleaner, and he didn’t like that at all. He also had a tantrum when his sister accidentally dropped a toilet roll into the toilet. When he went to the early intervention centre AEIOU they made him a book full of pictures of toilets. We still have that book.

His 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.

21 thoughts on “Obsessions and Special Interests – The Autism Files

  1. Things which move in circles, light, water. Maybe what looks like obsession from the outside is very detailed observation over a long time? Circles, light, water, flying…Michael sounds like he knows what he is doing, even it is a bit difficult for us busybacksons to figure out.

    1. Excellent observation – flushing toilets (water circulating), planets moving around the sun, waves, fans, wheels – all have circular aspects. But what you have offered is an explanation – which may be the correct one – it is still an obsession because it interferes with every day function. Obsessions can be functional (detailed observation leading to expertise) and indeed that is why so many people who have excelled in their careers, particularly scientists, have had autism or aspergers. Without obsession it is difficult to excel. What the hell is a ‘busybacksons’ – ha,ha!

  2. I find autism frightening but fascinating…particularly what you said about people who’ve excelled in v specific fields…

    someone said to me once that people w autism appear to be shut off but in fact they’re too open, like they recieve too much information from the world and can’t filter it out…is this why they’re often stressed?

    1. That’s spot on. They have difficulty processing information and often don’t filter out what we consider extraneous information. They take in too much and get overwhelmed. Their sensory systems are often out of kilter – they either have over developed senses (sound sensitive, sight sensitive, touch sensitive) or underdeveloped (don’t feel pain, need deep touch to be able to feel) and vestibular and proprioceptive systems (need extra movement, unsure of where their bodies are in space – motion). They can also find it hard to comprehend speech and interpret social language. No wonder they are stressed. Focussing on one thing, like a special interest can help them shut out the confusing stimuli around them. It’s not that they don’t like people they just often can’t cope with the physical and social world. They often crave to be with people but just can’t deal with it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Maxine. Yes, he has certainly added on a few, though now he has such a variety that they just add to his knowledge base – rather than interfering with his life (so technically not obsessions any more). He likes to read his ‘encyclopedia of space'(an adult text book) on the way to school in the car and types out quiz questions for the family – I’ve found out that I know very little about the cosmos. He still loves water but there are no compulsive behaviours associated with it – so just like a lot of people. He won’t even flush the toilet now (he used to love doing that) – so again just like any grotty 9 year old.

    1. I think nearly all the kids at the AEIOU had a thing about trains, especially Thomas the Tank Engine (Michael was the only one with a thing for planes). Talk about an expensive obsession – those tracks and trains cost a fortune. There is a facial expression software for ASD kids that uses train faces.

  3. Hi Gabrielle – so glad I stopped by to read this fascinating piece, thank you. I can relate to Michael, as a child I would also get caught up in things like watching water roll out of the faucet, putting my hands and different shaped objects under it to see how it splayed. Liquids and how they move were like magic-all the tiny bubbles and curves, the transparency, the slippery quality and such. And I think I understand rage/frustration associated with exhausting effort to categorize and build expectation (trust sort of) only to find some careless idiot, even if it is someone of your family who loves you, throws a roll of toilet paper where it so obviously shouldn’t be. At least not in that context. Though it can be trying, it seems Michael is allowed to express his feelings, it is safe for him to tantrum-even if somewhat fruitless, which is much better than what I had to contend with as a so-called normal child. Contexts seem to be difficult to understand if the point of reference is outside of them. Case in point, Pauls poem which led me here, now I understand it with a rounded perspective.

    1. So glad you appreciated it Tipota and thanks for stopping by. Yes, I generally just let Michael obsess as much as he wants as I know it relaxes him. I think there are benefits to observing something for hours at a time – it imprints on your brain and you can get to another level of understanding. As a kid I used to like sitting under trees and looking closely at the bark, insects and leaves, for ages at a time. And I agree that sometimes you need the context to get a full appreciation of Paul’s poems (puzzle box indeed).

  4. Thanks again Gabe for stories of Michael. I also enjoyed the poem from Gingatao about him. He shall be a great recycling educator in high school no doubt. Luv your work. Ta.

    1. I’m sure he will be something along those lines, though now with his obsession with cosmology he is talking about travelling to the planets. Though it is all related – we might all be travelling to the planets since we have stuffed up our own planet so badly – did you know it’s National Recycling Week!

  5. Thanks for sharing Gabrielle, he sounds like a very special boy, and I can think of a lot worse things to do than obsess with toilets (my day job is in the public service, enough said?)

  6. I’ve recently taken note that my 19-month-old is pretty much obsessed with turning light switches on and off. He too, will stand in a chair and turn it on and off wherever he can reach; When we get up in the morning, he asks to turn the blinds open to let the light in then looks at me and says “off?” Throughout the grocery store this weekend he was staring up at the ceiling asking “off?” “Off?” I know one behavior may not be enough to suspect he has any sort of anxiety or obsession, but he’s also stares at the fan and blows at it. I wasn’t sure if he just associated the fan operation with the light switch, but should I be watching for any behaviors at this point? I’ve had a slight suspicion something might be going on inside his little head for a couple weeks now…

    1. Hi malindianajones – it is always a good idea to get regular developmental checkups of young children with the local health nurses – they know what milestones to check etc., in regard to behaviours and speech. You are right that one behaviour or obsession doesn’t necessarily indicate autism or any disorder in fact, but it is always best to keep on eye on these things and maybe look at an autism checklist for other possible indications. You can read another blog post I did on early identification if you want https://gabriellebryden.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/early-warning-signs-the-autism-files/ and feel free to email me if you want a chat about your concerns.

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