My son is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and even there, obsessions are a part of his everyday life. I’m not saying he has full-blown OCD, but a perseverative, hyper-focused interest in random objects or topics is a very common “symptom” of autism at every level. That intense concentration is debilitating when a person can’t shut it off, but it’s also been singled out as an asset by some modern tastemakers.
My husband is always the first to point out at there’s a fine line between obsession and passion. Just as obsession is often disabling, passion is the abler of motivation and practice in the face of obstacles. Modern cultural journalist Malcolm Gladwell agrees. In his oft-quoted book The Outliers, Gladwell makes a compelling argument that a bulk of practice (10,000 hours to be exact) is the secret to success. And in recent years, companies like Microsoft, Freddie Mac, and Walgreens are recruiting adults on the autism spectrum with the view that their unique abilities are an asset.
So yes, I am a self-interested autism mom, but I have good reason to believe that if it’s possible to channel your kid’s autism-driven obsessions into meaningful passions, then he or she will have a clear edge over the neurotypical population in the workforce.
The first recognizable obsession my kiddo had was anything but useful. It was for pinecones. Between the ages of two and four, he could not pass an evergreen tree without stopping to collect its fallen pinecones off the ground. This sounds cute, but truly – he COULD NOT walk past an evergreen without having a ten-minute collection ritual. If we attempted to skip it or even shorten it, we would be met with an ear-piercing, heart-wrenching, totally irrational and embarrassing tantrum that would literally suck the spirit out of all of us for the rest of the day.
As life can be cruel, there lived a whole patch of evergreens outside of the clinic where my son attended a daily therapy program at the time. Over those months, we began each morning with a behavioral interventionist trying to break his ritual and get him inside the building – to “put the behavior on extinction” as they would say. But doing that just caused him to latch onto a new obsession, for clown fish, like the one occupying a tank in the lobby of the clinic. And you’d be surprised to learn how many other fish tanks there were in the life of a boy who, admittedly, spent a lot of time in clinicians’ waiting rooms.
The cycle continued like a game of whack-a-mole, where an odd new fascination would pop up every time another was squelched, until finally, around age five my son took on fairly “normal” obsession – airplanes. Lots of little kids his age liked airplanes, and even my husband was interested in them. So instead of fighting this one, we embraced it. Every weekend, father and son would pack a lunch and head out to a grassy field adjacent to the nearest airport, LAX, where they had a front-row seat to watch the planes land. By now my son was fluently verbal, and he had many questions, good questions. His dad taught him about different engines and fuselages, and together they figured out how to patch into and interpret air traffic control so they could predict the landing patterns of the “heavies” – the coveted 747s and A380s. There were other parents, too, taking their kids to the grassy field from time to time. The only person who knew how frequently my family went there was the homeless man living under one of the trees. And he actually befriended my son – he didn’t seem to mind the endless outpouring of questions that came from Little Man’s mouth.
The airplane obsession spawned a secondary fascination with naval aircraft carriers. Now there were two at once, both seemingly typical, and the latter even easier to control. You don’t just stumble upon airplane carriers on your average day – you have to seek them out. Our son was old enough to grasp that this had to be an indulgence saved for special occasions. So he learned how to surf the internet to look up statistics and photos of aircraft carriers in between real sightings. Despite my aversion to screen time, we let him do this pretty freely because the obsession was actually helping his academics. It drove him to become computer savvy, and it gave his reading fluency a huge boost.
Minecraft came on the scene, and I groaned at the idea that a video game would occupy so much of his headspace. Instead, my son used it more as a tool to perseverate on other things. He built navy ships and airplanes of all shapes and sizes, some kick ass roller coasters during that obsession, monster broccoli plants during his gardening obsession, and saltwater aquariums full of whales and sharks at the height of his ocean obsession. That was a great one – the ocean prompted him to become a strong swimmer and take surf lessons, and the whole family enjoyed our outings at the beach. It was sensory heaven for all.
Back in our pinecone days, I couldn’t have predicted that Little Man’s interests would mature with him, but they have. At age nine, much of his energy is focused on two-story houses, namely the boxy modern McMansions popping up in our quaint neighborhood. He wants to live in one of those someday, so he draws blueprints (he calls them “whiteprints” because the graph paper he uses is white, not blue) of various floor plans, and he has designed the perfect pool for our family. He’s also obsessed with plate tectonics, and last week he started making a book about the formation of Mount Everest. I wager a bet that these interests will prove to be more enriching for him than an intimate knowledge of, say, SpongeBob SquarePants.
So for my son, and for others like him on the autism spectrum, the internal drive is there, it’s ingrained. With continued guidance and enthusiasm from us, he’ll be on track to finding a professional niche someday where the conviction of his obsessions will beat out the passion of others. That brand of parenting is easier described than done, his single-mindedness still often flies in the face of our support, but at least one thing is encouraging – I brag a hell of a lot more than I blush these days.