(Our opening picture shows Ethan Fineshriber, a leading American martial artist with a second-degree black belt, who fights in the Extreme Martial Arts black belt boys’ division of the American Taekwondo Association. Pic by the ATA.)
One common trait among autists is an autistic special interest, or obsession. (Although the word obsession can have negative connotations – quite rightly so, in some instances of course!); so ‘hyper focussed interest’ is maybe a nicer phrase).
Repetitive behaviours and rigid thought patterns are after all a key element of Autism Spectrum Neurologies and Asperger Syndrome, and were together part of the ‘triad of impairments‘ that was used to describe the main challenges that autists face. So it’s no surprise that autists can become hyper focussed on a subject.
Repetition and patterns
Autists tend to thrive on repetition and patterns, so anything with a regular element to it appeals to the autistic brain; for example collecting certain items. The ‘collection’ and ‘special interest’ elements often intertwine, meaning autists develop real expertise in their area of interest. (Collecting information can become an interest in itself, for example enjoying ‘quizzing’, like TV’s Anne Hegarty.)
Many autistics go on to become leading experts in that field, and if extensive practise is required, for example to perfect a sporting discipline, again the autist’s penchant for repetition serves them well (like Ethan Fineshriber, pictured.). It’s not uncommon for the interest to be slightly off field or unusual (in the eyes of NT people especially).
When obsessions turn ‘unhealthy’
So, what of the word obsession? This sometimes signifies the interest has reached unhealthy levels – but in whose eyes?
There are many instances where a special interest (in someone of any neurology, not just in an autistic person), becomes unhealthy – one example is computer gaming. Professor Tony Attwood at his 2019 ACAMH ‘What you need to know about Autism’ presentation touched upon the subject, explaining that while computer gaming can be a tool to help cope with anxiety, and is a useful ‘thought blocker, gaming can be very addictive, and that working with the individual before they get to an obsessive or addicted level is key. For autists who struggle with ‘real world’ socialisation, the non-face-to-face world of gaming can be very appealing.
(An obvious route to support expertise in gaming, or computing in general, is to embark on a career in the field. This allows the autistic individual to further their studies but keep up the interest. Thank goodness Satoshi Tajiri, creator of Pokemon, maintained his special teenage interest in arcade games, as he now has a very popular and successful business empire. (Silicon Valley in the USA is awash with autistic individuals, and they’re often specifically recruited).
Unhealthy patterns of autistic behaviour
Sometimes, obsessive behaviours can lead to unhealthy patterns such as counting calories and eating disorders, or self medicating with alcohol or drugs. (Sterotypies’ like trichotillomania (hair pulling) and dermatillomania (skin picking) can also develop, which can be unhealthy).
It is therefore important for families to be vigilant for any mental health or repetitive / addiction-type issues, and involve relevant specialist clinicians.
Obsessions or hyper focussed interests can also extend to people, and this can also sometimes be unhealthy – eg. forming an attraction or relationship that is unrequited.
Autistic special interests – a haven of safety and expertise
However, for the most part, special interests are just that – a haven of safety and expertise. A joy! A feeling of validation! A sense of having found a tribe (of similar enthusiasts)! Autistic special interests are often cause for celebration.
Professor Tony Attwood at his 2019 ACAMH ‘What you need to know about Autism’ presentation said that autistic special interests can be:
A means of relaxation, pleasure; [A way of] using knowledge to overcome fear; [A way of] keeping anxiety under control; [A way of] ‘thought blocking’; An energiser when exhausted or sad; A way of offering motivation and conceptualisation.
Left: Chris Packham, pictured promoting his ‘Asperger’s and Me’ documentary. Pic by the BBC.
As autists struggle with communication and socialisation to varying degrees, an interest can also be a way of meeting like-minded people. It can introduce new social interactions and develop social skills, and boost the individual’s confidence. Like many things, a special interest in an autistic individual can be cyclical, eg can change and be replaced over time. So if parents are concerned that a child’s collection is unusual, it may pass. (Or, it may develop into a thriving career, like naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, who was obsessed with the natural world as a child. Chris built up many collections that others may have thought odd, like animal remains).
Stuck in a loop
Another element which falls under the same category is obsessive thought patterns. Autists are often accused of ‘not letting things go’, or ruminating over something that seems inconsequential to others. (This can link to obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD; which can be a co-morbid condition of Autism Spectrum Neurologies.)
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Whilst this ‘stuck record’ may be frustrating for others, (eg. if the autistic repeatedly talks about and frets over a conversation they had, and wonders if someone was upset; or is feeling troubled by a confrontation when they felt bullied, and continually verbalises their feelings); it’s crushing for the autist.
The thought process does become like a loop or stuck record, and continually plays, intruding on everything else. It can lead to impulsivity – eg ‘having it out’ with a person, making an official complaint about a service, or unnecessarily breaking ties with a friend or colleague.
There’s no definitive way to break the autistic pattern or cycle, although training one’s brain to recognise ‘stuck’ patterns can help. (For someone of any neurology!)
Recognising other accompanying stress-related signs, such as feelings of anxiety, butterflies in the tummy, higher heart rate, etc. Or an increased need to stim. If one identifies the ‘stuck record’ as a sign or symptom, it can be easier to look at it objectively.
Taking a set number of deep breaths and repeating a reassuring phrase.
Changing the environment, even if it’s moving to another room. (If sensory issues are exacerbating things, a quieter or less busy area may be beneficial.)
Undertaking some exercise, even a brisk walk, or jogging on the spot, to physiologically alter one’s state.
Using some kind of sensory activity to distract the brain, maybe using pressure, like a standing press-up against a wall, or a press-up in the floor. Similarly, bouncing on a trampoline or hitting a punch bag can help with recalibration.
Writing down the issue on paper and acknowledging that it’s now ‘out’, and has been dealt with. (One could even create a worry postbox for the letter – ideal for children.)
‘Stop going on about it!’
For a third party, it is rarely useful to tell the autist that their issue is annoying. (Eg. ‘Stop going on about it! It doesn’t matter, surely?‘). Sometimes with a child, it can be useful to let the ‘loop’ run its course, or help them with distraction techniques and mindfulness.
In anyone (of any age or neurology), helping them work though the obsessive thought, and find a solution, can help. Identifying the issue on a traffic light system of concern (red, amber and green), or a ‘cool to hot’ temperature gauge of concern, may benefit the autist, in terms of self regulation. Keeping a diary may also help, especially as a form of reflection, and to recognise that a former issue is now rectified.
It’s important for third parties to try to respect the individual’s neurology, and accept that patterns, sameness and hyper-focus are usually key aspects of the autist’s personality and make-up. And if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em; maybe it’s time to learn more about the special interest too?!
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Neurologies / Disorders / Conditions, or Asperger’s; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
Also published on Medium.