Three questions from two parents this time on a single topic: The autism spectrum and obsessive interests. These questions were about a child and teen, but this is a topic that can be relevant for any age…so let’s do it. Let’s Q and A this business.
Q: As kids get older is it common for obsessions to sometimes be more socially inappropriate? We have sort of worked this out but it got me thinking about them and what adults with Aspergers might think about finding a balance.
Yes! It is very common for obsessions to sometimes be perceived as more socially inappropriate as the years go by. Not that they are inappropriate, they can just be perceived as such.
Having said that, let me step back and make a more general point: obsessive interests themselves are a very common, very normal part of life for autistics. The downside is that it can also be very common for those interests to clash with the surrounding social environment. It’s not fair, but it happens since these intense hobbies can deviate pretty far from what neurotypical peers are focusing on.
I can tell you from personal experience that these obsessive interests just are what they are. They happen; they are not something one can just set aside, ignore. Again, they can be a normal part of the autistic experience.
The most important point, in my opinion, is to avoid responses that might be punitive or shaming in any way. If someone on the spectrum is made to feel embarrassed about something that their mind is focused on, that can seriously harm their sense of confidence and self worth.
Some people can react to these interests negatively because they don’t get it…it just doesn’t make sense to them. Please know: you don’t need to get it. Find some way to turn that corner and just go with it, because these interests can be an intense and deeply personal way for autistics to engage with the world. I would add that they can also function as a comfort zone and sense of stability, as intense as they can be at times.
Those are just some general thoughts; the person asking this question actually had a more specific concern.
Q: How does one respond if an interest goes so far that it becomes a safety issue? How do you support the autistic, while making sure there are boundaries in place that help them avoid potentially dangerous scenarios?
Just to make the context clear, let me describe a hypothetical unrelated to the question where this might be an issue: let’s say a child is very interested in learning about bugs…they love memorizing classifications, traits and so on…but because the interest level is so high, they develop a tendency to wander outdoors, looking for specimens. Autism and wandering can be a scary thing…so even though this is just a hypothetical, there are certainly instances when obsessive interests can create risk factors.
I don’t know that I have a great answer for this…hopefully if other parents and/or autistics have grappled with this issue, they can share their coping strategies in the comments.
What I would say is that it would be extremely helpful to establish 1. an open line of communication and 2. deeply instilled habits of communication.
If someone knows they can discuss their special interest with you, without feeling ashamed or embarrassed, that creates a bond of trust. Now I know that many parents out there are thinking, “My kid won’t STOP discussing their special interest!” Which is great…it then becomes important to set certain habits in place so that you can know, not only what your child is thinking, but perhaps even what they are planning.
If a loved one has an obsessive interest, encourage them tell you the instant they experience even a slight change in focus. If they want to talk about bugs with you…good. But if they decide they want to find bugs on their own, they should verbalize that immediately. Most people with an intense focus won’t think to do that in the moment, and that’s why it helps immensely if you can work with them on learning to make announcements before potential safety issues even arise.
In short, get the habits down early. Make trust a habit…let them know you are a safety net for sharing that interest. Make communication a habit…practice discussing any changes or shifts in the nature of the interest, so that perhaps you can get an early warning if it’s going in an risky direction, like wandering or other unintentional safety hazards.
Not all autistics can communicate thoughts as they are happening, so this advice is obviously not one-size fits all. I wish I had better answers given the complexity of the issue, but where applicable, the communication habits can be a first line of defense.
And by the way, unrelated to the safety issue…but a perfect example of how special interests can create strong bonds between parents and children…if you haven’t read Pucks and Puzzle Pieces, please do. It’s a blog by a terrific dad who uses his son’s love of sports statistics to create a vibrant and meaningful path for navigating the world together.
The next question brings a different angle to this topic:
Q: My child feels ashamed about some of the shows they are very focused on. I tell them it’s OK, it’s not bad, but they still feel awful. How can I help?
Self-advocacy. Nothing is better for feelings of shame than self-advocacy.
I’ve been recommending that parents “go with it”, but even autistics can have a hard time accepting their own interests. It’s common for autistics to receive negative feedback for their differences…but even if they receive no negative feedback whatsoever, they can still become self-loathing. Sometimes, just seeing that the people around you are different…seeing that they are all sharing interests and forming networks and groups all predicated on what they have in common…that can be alienating and painful, especially when your own interests are so singular in nature.
It can be very difficult to ignore the values of the surrounding world, so what many autistics do is internalize the values of others…they view their own traits as “strange”, “embarrassing”…and this leads to a lot of self-loathing and even depression.
Self-advocacy is the opposite of that. It involves pushing away the values of boring, conventional people and saying, “My differences are my strengths.” With obsessive interests, this might sound like, “Most people are never truly passionate about anything. I’m lucky I can enjoy something in a way others can’t.”
This also involves understanding why, specifically, someone is feeling ashamed about what they are into. In most cases, when someone is made to feel embarrassed, it’s because their interest is perceived as being either age-inappropriate or gender-inappropriate. If an autistic teen or adult obsesses over films for children…if a boy likes a program others consider to be “girly”…they can receive enormous pressure to change that habit.
Which is crap. To repeat, obsessive interests can be an intense and deeply personal way for autistics to engage with the world. Other people don’t need to get it. And autistics certainly don’t need to internalize any of this age-appropriate, gender nonsense. Which is why learning the self-talk of self-advocacy can be so important. It can help reverse the toxic judgments of others that do nothing but create shame and self-hatred.
(Autistic writer Chloe Rothschild recently posted about her experiences with this topic here; my favorite line: “This is happy and are some of the many forms of what it looks like for me.” Diary of a Mom has also written eloquently about this on numerous occassions.)
I hope the child being asked about here can learn that, yes, others might judge…but it’s important to map out what makes you happy. If you know your traits, your interests, you can then work on understanding that those things are valuable. Those things will allow you to have a good life…whereas the judgments of others will only make you miserable. The things other people want you to be into? The more conventional, popular things? That stuff will bore you to tears, I promise. You don’t need it.
(In this post, I try to bond with my dad over a popular action movie. It goes about as well as you would expect.)
Final point: for me, self-advocacy and managing my differences does not mean discussing my interests anywhere and everywhere. I’ve learned to identify safe zones…and unsafe zones. For kids and teens on the spectrum…and heck, adults…the social world can be a cruel place. So, learning when to share interests…and when to protect yourself by not sharing…can be helpful when it comes to avoiding negative experiences and the shame they can cause.
A better way to put this, especially for kids like the one being asked about here: understand that you are interesting and creative and awesome. And other people should have to EARN the right to know you. So, share your interests with people you trust. With everyone else, it’s okay to hold some of that back. The social world can be cruel, people might judge…and people like that do not deserve to know you. They haven’t earned that right.
Self-advocacy: learning to feel good about your differences…learning to feel sadness and compassion for the people who never get to experience them.
All observations here are based on my own experiences with obsessive interests (another blogger and I recently discussed one of my longest running obsessions, the French film Playtime). They’ve been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but I am not an expert or mental health professional…hopefully these remarks can just be food for thought and/or a starting point for constructive discussion. This post grew out of a Facebook conversation; you can read that here; it includes a lot of great feedback and advice from parents. Thanks to all for their questions and comments.