Taboo Topics – 3. Inappropriate Obsessions

I confess, I’m starting to lose motivation for this series of posts. (What on earth did I hope to achieve by airing all the worst Asperger faults in public??) But hey, I feel committed now, so might as well see this through. I only hope people find it informative or enlightening.

And what a gnarly one I have for us today! Trying to work out how to approach this one is giving me a fine challenge to start the new year.

Firstly, this one needs a really big disclaimer at the start, which is: please do not assume that all autistics indulge in the types and degrees of behaviours I’m going to be mentioning, we are all different. And in particular, please understand that spectrumites in general have no less moral sensibility than the general population. So, with that out of the way…

Topic 3: Inappropriate Obsessions

You’ve probably heard that autistics have their “special interest”. I dislike that term. For one thing, some of us Asperger-types do not stick with a single “special” interest throughout our lives, but shift from one interest to another much like anyone else. For another, and I’m going to step straight into the minefield of public opinion here, I maintain that they are not just interests but (to varying degree) obsessions. The truth is, we don’t have “special interests”, we have autistic obsessions.

What I hope to achieve here is understanding that, despite my using the term “obsessions”, these are not necessarily something to be hidden away or feared. Once again, understanding is the first step towards acceptance.

So why do we develop obsessions? It’s related to the way autistic brains are wired – and the way we cluster over at the “sytemising” rather than the “empathising” side of the E-S field. Our brains are, by nature, constantly working to understand the nature of the things around us by seeking patterns and categorising. The way we learn things is from the bottom up – gathering all the data and seeing if it clusters in ways which allow us to draw conclusions.

Take the stereotype of the child who will sit for extended periods reading the telephone directory. OK, yes, it seems weird. But consider all the connections a telephone book opens up to a brain at a certain level of development. The child may come away from their study that having learnt how to sort words into alphabetical order. They may now know the names of all the suburbs in their area, including their locations and postcodes. They may have started categorising surnames into the common and uncommon, into standard spelling and alternative spellings. Would it not be fascinating, to learn all this for the first time?

I believe what happens is that every time we make a connection between one piece of data and another, our brain neurones fire up in excitement. We get a dopamine hit. This is what keeps the child’s head buried in the telephone directory – it is almost an addiction.

Can you see why autistics have a tendency to get hooked on train timetables and route maps?

In the past, females tended to be overlooked for diagnosis because our interests were less “out there” – animals, maybe, or novels. Never mind that the girl has been learning the colours, weights and temperament of every breed of dog, or has been storing in memory the behaviour and dialogue of fictional characters to help make sense of the real world.

I’m not saying this method of learning is limited to autistics, but I think the autistic brain tends towards a stronger craving for it. Many of us can drop easily into a state of hyper-focus. This is a bit like the concept of “flow” – being so completely absorbed in an activity that one is aware of nothing else. From personal experience, I would even postulate that we cannot maintain our mental health without regular ‘fixes’ of our obsessions.

Problems arise when we develop an obsession which is inappropriate in type and/or intensity. It is very common, for example, for a young adult to get into trouble at work for spending too much company time indulging an obsessive interest. This could be enough to lose them their job.

There can be legal consequences of inappropriate obsessions also. There’ve been famous cases of transport-obsessed autistics stealing trucks or trains out of their need to indulge their interest. (For an example, check out a guy called Darius McCollum). Unfortunately, it is quite common to develop an obsessive interest in a particular person. Combined with autistic social and empathy deficits, this can lead to stalking and harassing behaviours (though often with no intent to harm).

You can see why this is a taboo topic. There is a very real, and probably justified, fear that to admit the existence of autistic obsessions would be to paint us all as undesirables and potential criminals.

What I would point out is the flip side of obsessions. The classic example would be Albert Einstein. However gifted he was at maths, would he have developed the general theory of relativity without a hefty dose of autistic single-minded focus? What about Greta Thunberg? Do you think she would have achieved global recognition without an autistic degree of obsession over climate damage?

What I’m saying is that autistic obsessiveness, of itself, is neither good nor bad. It acts a mental driver, pushing a person to a deeper and more intense level of application to whatever has grabbed their interest – whether that is higher mathematics or the novels of Jane Austen or the history of the diesel locomotive.

This is a power, a gift to society, if only people had the wisdom to see and harness it. The challenge is only in the recognition of autistic obsessions when they occur, and the steering of them in positive directions.

My sad conclusion is that society still has a long way to go. Maybe we’ll be getting somewhere when the rail companies and legal authorities decide not to lock up the would-be train drivers turned thieves like Darius, but to employ them instead.

2 thoughts on “Taboo Topics – 3. Inappropriate Obsessions”

  1. The world is about to improve dramatically as Autistics start to realize the Truth about themselves! The rest of the world isn’t going to be to happy to hear the facts, but that is ok, because they weren’t happy to begin with!

    Autism is the biggest upgrade of humanity in thousands of years and the True God of nature made this evolution in humanity come about for several reasons. Our society has been in a downward spiral for a very long time because of the church’s indoctrinations and the lies they created around a man I respect more than anyone. And now I follow in his footsteps and continue what he started before he got killed.

    Happy New Year!
    This is going to be the year that changes everything and will make life here on this planet better than it has been in a long time!

    Liked by 1 person

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