Obsession is a common subject in circles around autism, ideas like obsessional behaviour, obsessional interests, being obsessed with things. It’s linked with a particular psychiatric condition known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD. OCD is one of the conditions that sit amongst those conditions which, place a person amongst the neurodivergent.
However OCD is a particular condition, and not every neurodivergent or autistic person has this condition. Indeed, there are allistic people that would indeed have this condition, in fact, I am privileged to call some allistic OCD people good friends.
The point here I think is that it is a misconception that all autistic people are obsessional, or, that they even have obsessions. Plenty of people have obsessions about things, or become obsessed with things, however, more likely is it that people have a special or prolonged interest in things, or, for want of a better word, have hobbies.
It’s no question that there is a stereotype of autistic people and in particular, autistics who identify as aspies, that they have obsessions, that they are unable to hold an interest in anything that is not their obsession. Like all stereotypes, this is simply not the actual reality.
Obsession is unfortunately loaded with negativity. To say someone is obsessed is generally percieved as a negative thing, whereas to say someone has a hobby or a strong interest does not have that negativity loaded into it, yet it seems that in general the broader community is happy to place this word as a matter of course on the things that autistic people are interested in or does, whilst at the same time choosing not to do so in regard to allistic people.
Of course, this is not universal in any way, it is a tendency, though. Many is the time when I have heard someone say to a parent when they explain they have an autistic child, ‘oh and what is their obsession’, this is not necessarily intended with a negative or judgmental motivation, however, when introduced to an allistic child, one doesn’t ask oh what is their obsession?
Far more likely is that the child would be asked what they are interested in if they have any hobbies. I am left wondering why this is so. I find it quite disheartening indeed. I think that it is just another facet of the public discourse around autism, that it is an inherently bad and negative thing. To be autistic is by default to be less, in the eyes of the public discourse and the general narrative, and so, it is without much thought, negative laden connotations are placed then on autistic people.
Of course, it goes without saying that there are autistic people and non-autistic people that do have obsessions and obsessional interests. This does not mean then that all autistic people are obsessional. It is as silly as saying that because some cats are black, all black cats eat grass, so all cats eat grass. The logic is clearly flawed.
As an autistic person, I have at times joked about being obsessed with things, but the reality is that I am not obsessional, I do have strong interests in things and they can be a fairly singular focus for extended periods of time. What they are not though is all encompassing to the point that they take control to such an extent that they can’t be pulled back from.
I suspect, that as many autistics have a strong ability to focus on things that this is easily mistaken for obsession. This, coupled with a difficulty adapting to unexpected change can add to this mistake. I think what is going on here is that as our focus is broken by an unexpected change, anxiety about that kicks in and a response can seem that we are in fact driven and controlled by the thing we were strongly focused on. I think this is true at least for myself.
The ability of particluar individuals to hyperfocus has brought society many advancements and discoveries. There will be debate about whether historical figures such as Einstein was autistic or not, however the fact remains that his ability to hyperfocus his thinking has contributed massively to the scientific community.
O is for Obsession and autistics are not obssessional.
O is for Obsession and hyperfocus is not obssession.
O is for Obsession ….
It’s time we stopped calling focus and interst obssession for one group and hobby for another…