Most individuals on the spectrum have what many call “specialist subjects.” These are topics of on-going interest, over long periods of time, that sometimes increase in intensity for various reasons and then abate for a while, but never go away. They usually cover a general area, such as dinosaurs, computers, video games, or in Nigel’s case, natural disasters. He has been interested in natural disasters since he was six years old and I allowed him to watch the movie Twister, which fascinated rather than scared him. Ever since then, he gravitates toward those types of movies and books, and he has expanded the topic to include “unnatural” disasters, such as the sinking of the Titanic. But sometimes these side interests turn into what I call the Obsession of the Week. They hit like a tornado, consume everything, and then they die down.
Obsessions of the Week literally consume him. He can think of nothing else, he does extensive internet searches on the topic, he can talk of nothing else, and I’m sure he lies awake into the wee hours imagining himself immersed in the topic. It is an obsession. His past Obsessions of the Week include Indiana Jones (Nigel became a Boy Scout because Indiana Jones was one), going to Mexico with his classmate’s family (somehow he thought it would be okay for him to go with them on a family trip), running his own Jurassic Park (because of the movie, he believes that dino DNA can be extracted and used to breed dinosaurs), and taking four fellow Boy Scouts on an Oregon Trail trip, starting in Independence, MO, where they will purchase oxen, supplies, and materials to build a wagon.
I have often wondered where these obsessions come from and how he can become so caught up in them. What purpose do they serve? Is it because now that his imagination is functioning that he’s making up for lost time? Is it because he had to learn to filter out the things that plagued him that he learned to put intense focus on the things that bring him joy? I’m not sure. I do know that even with the problems associated with his obsessions (difficulty transitioning from an obsession-based activity to a non-obsession-based activity, difficulty communicating with him when in obsession-mode, concern about him not getting enough sleep), I still welcome them for several reasons. They motivate him. They encourage self-esteem. They keep him productively occupied. They inspire him. They educate him. They give him something to talk about. All of these things are so important for an autistic teen.
The Obsession of the Week last week was King Kong. We had to rent all versions and sequels of the movies and checked out a book at the library on King Kong cinematography. He put in a request for a King Kong stuffed animal. He watched King Kong-related YouTube videos. He built King Kong scenes out of Lego. He perfected primate chest-beating.
And now we are into a new week. His father, who lives 700 miles away, is visiting, as he does several times a year, so Nigel is happily focused on spending time with him. They are bowling right now. The only problem is that his dad brought his really cute black cocker spaniel puppy with him on the visit. And Nigel loves him. I think I know what the next Obsession of the Week will be.