A question was asked on a website: Is it possible for someone with Asperger’s to replace an obsession with another one? I took a shot at the answer since I have Asperger Syndrome (AS) and I know first hand about having obsessions. Some of mine have come and gone, but a few remain!
According to the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for AS, having an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” is a core symptom of AS.
That’s a mouthful! In plain English, this criteria is having unusually strong interests/obsessions. Personally, they can sometimes be overwhelming, annoying, and fascinating.
I remember on my job as a substitute teacher’s aide working with a student with AS who was obsessed with monsters. During choice play time, he would bypass the games and I-pads for the crayons and paper to draw pictures of his favorite movie monsters. If there was a movie coming out featuring a monster, along with a superhero, he would tell me all about it. I’d listen knowing my attention was important to him, but I admit I didn’t follow his every word.
Many people have special interests. That’s nothing unusual about someone who is not on the spectrum having an obsession. What makes it a “special interest” in the autism criteria is the focus and intensity. When it affects every aspect of one’s life or is sought after with strong intensity to the exclusion of everything else, it is considered a “special interest”.
An obsession I long ago gave up but had when I was growing up was soap operas. I spent most of my winter, spring, and summer school breaks in soap opera land consuming hours of soap on my couch potato.
Overall I think most of us view them as a positive thing. An obsession I’ve had for decades and still have is with electronic gadgets, such as computers, tablets, voice-activated assistants, smartphones/watches, and virtual reality glasses. Shopping for and getting absorbed in my gadgets recharges my batteries. If I feel one of those awful meltdowns is coming on, sometimes spending quality time with one or more of my gadgets will help me avert one. Sometimes, that is.
Not all Autistic people have special interests but I think many do. Some people have one special interest while others have multiple. Some people have the same special interest(s) throughout their entire life while some people’s change over time.
While most special interests are “harmless,” if an interest involves behavior that is illegal, taboo or a threat to your or someone else’s health or well-being, it may be necessary to seek help in redirecting one’s attention to a safer alternative.
I have to curve one down for the sake of my health. My obsession with exercise began when I added to my gadget collection a Samsung Gear smartwatch that counts my steps among other things. Once I got into the routine of counting every step I take, I overdid it! Only by 30,000 steps per day. I take my doctor’s word for it that I’m the only patient in his many years of practice that he had to tell a patient to “cut down on the exercise”. This counting-my-steps obsession is gone. I’m down to 10,000.