Obsessions are one of the most noticeable traits in a child with Asperger’s Syndrome. It is the most difficult thing for a parent to deal with, mainly because the child doesn’t know how to initiate a normal conversation that is not about that particular topic. Teachers can quickly become frustrated because obsessive compulsive topics and behaviors can prevent the child from learning at school. Before I discuss this topic, I want to emphasize that it is important to refrain from the idea of eliminating the topic from their daily routine. However, it is possible to help your child or teenager understand how and why these obsessions can affect their ability to interact with other people and function at school or work. It is something that takes tons of practice and cooperation.
As I grew from a child to a young adult, my obsessions changed. I obsessed about something for about five years, then I outgrew it and became obsessed with something else. Many of the therapists and teachers I have worked were like the people I emphasized in the first paragraph. They seemed to think I would “magically outgrow” my obsessions by screaming at me and forcing me to act “normal”. In one of my previous blogs I touched on obsessions a bit. When I was around three or four years old, I became obsessed with fans, the mechanical devices with blades that spin and keep you cool in the summer. Anytime I would see a fan, I would stare at it and immediately become mesmerized by the blades spinning around. My parents were totally puzzled. They kept asking themselves “Why is our son so fascinated by a simple old fan? There are millions of other things out there to talk about”. My parents tried to convince me into changing the subject, but it only worked for a few minutes. I would pretend to listen to my mother, then I would go right back to talking about fans again.
My mother told me that the main reason I was obsessed with fans was simply because they spin. In my memoir that I hope to someday have published described an unusual talent I possessed when I around five or six months old. I would crawl into a cabinet that was closer to the ground, and I would take out the lids for the pots and pans used on the stove. I would pick my favorite ones and lay them with the handle touching the floor and spin them around. I was in my own little world, and I had no idea what was going on around me. My mother said this was the first Autistic characteristic I exhibited. When I look back and think about this obsession, I try to think about possible reasons why I was so obsessed with something as simple as a fan. The subtle movement of a fan spinning is very mesmerizing. Just staring at a fan for a few seconds could cause some people to go into instantly go into a trance like state. Also, there are many Autistic kids who enjoy something called “white noise”. The sound of a ceiling fan blowing is usually noticeable when it is on it’s high or medium setting. It is a very calming noise. I purchased a ceiling fan for my bedroom a few years ago, and the sound of it blowing over my bed is very relaxing. During the warm months, I have noticed it helps me get to sleep faster.
I didn’t really notice my obsessions affected the way I interacted with people until I was in the fourth grade. After they remodeled and expanded my school, there was one thing I became obsessed with fire drills. This was not like my fascination with fans when I was younger, it was something I was afraid of because of the loud noise. Along with updating the entire school, they updated the buildings fire alarm system. I was in third grade the very first time I heard that horrible, shrill noise. The class was lining up to go to lunch, and the fire alarm went off by a mistake. It sounded like a cricket screaming through a megaphone, and it was also equipped with flashing strobe lights. I covered my ears, and we walked out of the building like we were supposed to. When we were instructed to walk back into the building, I made the commented to the person standing in front of me “that fire alarm sounded like a cricket screaming through a megaphone”. My teacher heard me and said “that’s an interesting observation, Derek”. During lunch, I kept bringing up the alarm and nervously making jokes about it. I would obsessively bring the topic of the fire alarm into conversations, it lasted until I was in sixth grade, my last year in elementary school. One day I brought it up to my friend Jason, and a boy named Connor said “You are obsessed with fire drills. Why is that?” I ignored him, and sat there quietly.
My classmates didn’t understand how that noise really hurt my ears when I heard it. Fire drills always happened when we least expected them to, and it really startled me. I didn’t really understand how to verbalize the sound bothered me. My mother talked to my teachers and the principal about it, and they put in my IEP “teachers must inform me about scheduled fire drills in advance.” That seemed to help, because I noticed I didn’t bring them up as often as I used to.
When I made the transition from elementary to junior high, I outgrew my obsession with fire drills because the alarm at the junior high wasn’t as loud and shrill. Seventh and eighth grade was the time I really started having problems fitting in. There was a boy named Eric, who was in my grade. He also went to the same gym I received personal training at, and we would occasionally strike up a general conversation with each other. I told my mother about him one day, and she told me I should ask for his IM screen-name and see if he wanted to chat. I really wanted to get to know him until one day I noticed something peculiar about him. I noticed he would say mean things about me behind my back, then look over at me and see if I could hear what he was saying. He made comments like “Derek is such a f***tard. I shared it with my mother when I came home that day. She told me he could still be interested in becoming friends with me. Sometimes people gossip about you because they want to become friends with you. I thought about that, but decided to keep my distance. This behavior continued into high school, until I finally realized he did not have friendship in mind.
High school was the time I started obsessing about people who made my life miserable. Every day I would talk to my mother about how I hated that I didn’t have any buddies in school, or how people would always make fun of me. I am not going into detail about bullying situations in this blog entry, but I am going to talk about how it affected my interaction with people. I described in my blogs about Lenape where people would pretend to be friends with me, then turn around and say or do something disrespectful. I experienced that so much I would have this generalization that every single person was trying to be mean to me. Anytime my mother would ask if I tried to socialize with somebody at lunch, I would say “Why do you care? Eric didn’t want to interact with me, why would anybody else want to?” I would go on and on about the things he said about me and how much I hated him and his friends. My mother would then say “Why do you keep bringing him up? He is not worth it. You need to move on”.
When I look back, I am glad my peers brought up the fact they were annoyed with me talking about fire drills. The unwritten social rule from Temple Grandin’s book is “Know When You Are Turning People Off”. Situations like that helped me realize that one-sided conversations and negativity can really draw people away from me. I never really understood this from role playing or talking about feelings with a therapist. I am glad I had the opportunity to put my social skills to the test when I would spend time with Aaron. Making one friend was the perfect remedy to help me forget about the negative experiences with Eric from school.
In conclusion, I hope you realize that just telling your child to stop talking about their obsession will not work. You have to take time and help them understand why it can affect their ability to interact with people.