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Obsessions and special interests

If there’s one thing everyone knows about people with autism, it’s that they can be single-minded. But when does a special interest tip over into an obsession?

Boy using a tablet © Photo by Rob Gillespie

If there’s one thing everyone knows about people with autism, it’s that they can often be single-minded. It is true that most people on the spectrum have a tendency to get very, very interested in their particular subjects.

This sounds harmless, and a lot of the time it can be. However, there is an issue that many parents know from experience: it’s one thing to have a ‘special interest’, but it’s another to have a serious obsession.

Special interests can range from the quirky to the marvellous, but obsessions can genuinely interfere with quality of life. Knowing which is which and what to do about it can be one of the balancing acts of parenting a child on the spectrum.

Why so obsessive?

Exactly why special interests, obsessions and autism tend to go together is still not very well understood. However, if you look at the key characteristics of autism, it does make a certain sense.

To begin with, autism is associated with ‘rigid’ thinking. This sounds quite judgemental, but another way to say it would be to say that people with autism tend to be more all-or-nothing than most people: something is either absolutely not interesting or absolutely fascinating.

This can be an oversimplification, but people with autism do tend to think in fewer shades of grey. When applied to favourite subjects, this can turn an interest into a passion, or an obsession.

Autism often brings with it sensory issues. Some obsessions and special interests – though not all – are at least partly about getting relief, or else pleasure, from those. This might be as simple as focusing all your attention on something to shut out a noisy and overwhelming world, but the interest might also bring sensory rewards in itself.

A lot of children with autism get fascinated with spinning objects or lights, for instance: the sight of a fan or a set of fairy lights can be mesmerising to sensitive eyes.

One thing you may encounter as a parent is people over-reacting to a special interest: it’s one of the best-known symptoms of autism, and can sometimes be treated as a negative when in reality it’s just a trait – and that can make things unnecessarily hard on your child if people try to ‘cure’ them of something that isn’t harming them.

Being knowledgeable about and interested in something can be a good thing, although it can sometimes involve difficulties and be something that needs to be discussed.

The difficulties only really start when an interest tips over into an obsession. At that point, what may be a coping method for complicated problems starts becoming a problem that complicates life in its own right.

What is an obsession anyway?

First of all, let’s talk terms. Everyone has interests, autism or not, but what makes an obsession?

Basically, an obsession is a form of anxiety disorder. It’s one thing to think about something a lot, but if it’s hard not to think about something, to the point where it’s undermining your ability to live and enjoy yourself, that’s an obsession.

It’s worth drawing a distinction between obsession and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder here. OCD is another kind of anxiety disorder in which someone gets stuck on a four-stage cycle:

  1. An unwanted, upsetting thought intrudes.
  2. They feel anxious and distressed.
  3. They feel compelled to do something (eg washing hands, checking all the lights are off) to deal with the distress.
  4. They feel a temporary relief, but the thought soon returns and the cycle begins again.

People with autism can have OCD, but that’s not what’s usually meant when people talk about obsessions here. There’s usually no compulsion to get rid of the obsessive thought; it’s more likely that the person will want to hang on to it. If they act on it, it’s because they find that rewarding rather than because they want to shake the thought off.

Sufferers of OCD find the whole business painful and would generally like to stop if they could, but a person with autism who has an obsession is generally very resolved to stick with it.

What’s the difference between an obsession and a special interest?

Most people with autism have particular favourite subjects. Special interests can simply be like hobbies or careers only more so: someone on the spectrum can dedicate an immense amount of time to their special interest, even dedicating every free moment to it.

Depending on what the special interest is, this could be the foundation of a career, a way to meet people, or an isolating eccentricity. People with autism don’t choose their interests based on how socially acceptable they are, so there can be an element of chance about the effect they’ll have on your life.

In the most positive cases of all, special interests can be turned into amazing accomplishments. Famously, for instance, the autism activist Temple Grandin turned her interest in cattle to an honourable end: loving animals and believing that in a meat-eating world they still deserved humane slaughterhouses. Grandin became a star consultant in the meat-packing industry, greatly reducing animal suffering.

In less dramatic cases – and extraordinary cases like Grandin’s are the minority – an interest can sometimes be a way to make friends, but sometimes a way to lose them. If you happen to be interested in, say, a popular football team, then you’ll find a lot of other people who share that interest and may be happy to talk to you about it – though perhaps not as much as you’d like, as with a special interest it’s possible that you can talk about it all day and most neurotypical people want a change of subject after a while.

On the other hand, if your special interest is in collecting the birth dates of everyone you meet, most people will feel that there’s a limit to how much they can talk about that, which can be frustrating for both the person with autism and the people they try to talk to.

It’s also worth noting that not all special interests and obsessions are expressed by long monologues. Some people with autism don’t have the language skills to do that, after all, and they can still have obsessions.

Particularly with younger children, special interests may often be expressed in action rather than speech: a child who’s fascinated with shoes, for instance, may spend all their time at home playing with their own and their parents’, and run to examine the shoes of strangers when you’re out and about.

This can be pretty difficult if it leads to socially unacceptable behaviours: it’s one thing to talk about shoes a lot, but it’s quite another to grab them off people’s feet on the bus, or to have a tantrum if you try to move them along after five minutes gazing into the shoe shop window.

What if it is an obsession?

If something’s starting to get excessive, does that make it an obsession? That can be a complicated question, especially if your child is young. Some difficult behaviour might be caused by immaturity: a four-year-old with autism is still only four years old, and younger children have less self-control than older ones.

If you’re trying to determine whether something’s reached the obsessive point, there are some useful questions:

Can they stop the behaviour independently?

Here are some questions to think abotut:

Do they seem unhappy while they’re doing it, like they aren’t actually enjoying it? Or does it seem like they try not to do it but can’t stop themselves?

Is it causing serious problems for other people? For instance, are they inconveniencing strangers on the street? Is it making things miserable for a sibling? Is family life being taken over?

Is it undermining their ability to learn? For instance, are they unable to concentrate on anything else at school?

Is it limiting their ability to make friends or meet new people? (This can be a tricky one, as autism tends to impair the social skills even without obsessiveness, but obsessions can make it harder.)

Is it turning into a ‘stim’? That is, have they stopped engaging with it as an interest and started using it as repetition for repetition’s sake? It’s one thing if a child is into drumming, say, but if they want to do nothing but hit the same pot with the same stick the same way all day, that’s no longer an interest but a stim. A bit of stimming is fine in moderation – it’s a way to relax – but if it gets compulsive, that can become an issue. (For more on this, check the Repetitive Behaviours section.)

If you’re starting to wonder, the thing to do is seek out a professional such as a psychologist. Special interests are fine, but obsessions are a problem, and it’s a good idea to get help when you need it.

If things do seem to be getting out of hand, it’s a good idea to step in early and get some professional help. You don’t want to spoil your child’s pleasure in life, but when the suffering an obsession causes outweighs the pleasure, it may be time to do something.

That ‘something’ may not be to remove the child’s interest – that’s neither a realistic nor a humane goal – but you will all benefit if you can get the problematic behaviours back within reasonable bounds and reduce the anxiety levels that go with them.

Managing special interests

We say ‘special interests are fine’, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bring some complications into life. The thing to do is create as constructive a relationship with them as possible:

Keep things calm

Special interests are most likely to get obsessional when your son or daughter is anxious. All the things you do to support them – trying to make stressful events feel predictable and safe, encouraging their communication skills so they don’t get too frustrated, trying to protect them from sensory overload, making sure they aren’t being bullied at school – will hopefully make them feel more comfortable in general, and keep special interests to the level of something they do for fun rather than something they can’t stop.

Set limits

Having to listen to your son or daughter talk about a favourite subject all the time can be a bit stressful for parents: however much you love your kid, you don’t necessarily love their favourite subject. And, bluntly, you probably will love it even less after you’ve heard about it all the time for years.

There are areas where different neurological needs can be at odds: parents can’t help feeling stressed or bored any more than the son or daughter can help wanting to talk about something a lot.

As with any family, compromise is probably the best solution. For instance, some families set a rule that their son or daughter can talk about their special interest for, say, three times a day for a maximum of twenty minutes at a time: that way, the son or daughter gets to enjoy talking about their beloved subject and everybody else gets to enjoy time where the beloved subject doesn’t completely dominate.

The same can be done if the special interest involves objects. You can’t take forty toy trains out with you every time you go to the shops, but what you can do is rule that you can take, say, three.

You may need to use visual supports to help communicate the message, and you might have to weather some tantrums (especially from a younger child) while you establish the rule, but once it’s integrated as part of the routine, it should hopefully become more manageable.

Teach social limits early

Teaching a child with autism what is and isn’t socially acceptable behaviour can be extremely difficult, and may always be a work in progress. However, some basics, such as ‘Don’t grab strangers’ coat buttons,’ are going to be important. The key things to focus on are:

Don’t touch people’s bodies, clothes or possessions without permission

Don’t follow or stare at people

Don’t go into marked-off areas, such as behind shop counters, without permission

Obsessions and fascinations are one of the things most likely to override the social rules your child otherwise knows but keep working on it and you’ll possibly save trouble later.

Expand the range

Introducing a child with autism to new activities can be very difficult – but using the special interest can actually give you a jumping-off point. Your child only likes one book because you made all the right animal noises the first time you read it? Find another book with animal noises, make some of the same ones you did with the favourite and mix in some new ones, and you may have just doubled their library.

Your child likes to memorise dates? Find a history club.

Your child only wants to play with a toy that makes a noise when you push a button? Get a toy piano and start playing them music.

Some of this may sound a bit glib, especially if your son or daughter has complex difficulties. If it were that easy to get a child with autism interested in a new subject, we probably wouldn’t be talking about any of this in the first place.

Linking old interests to new ones can sometimes be the beginning of opening up your son or daughter's horizons – not to stop them from enjoying the interests of their choice, but to show them how many choices they might really have.

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