Recently, someone found TeenAutism by searching “Can autistic teens have obsessive thoughts?” and probably stumbled upon the entire Obsessions category over there on the right. Because in Nigel’s case, you might as well ask, “Is there snow on Mt. Everest?” and the answer would be all the time. And while of course not all autistic teens have obsessive thoughts, it’s probably safe to say that many do.
At this point, I should probably define what I mean by “obsessive thoughts.” I am not referring to what is commonly called a “specialist subject.” Nigel has those, too. Those are things that he has a strong interest in, usually over a long period of time. Things like Lego, Disney, dinosaurs, space exploration, time travel, science, geography, history, and movies. Nigel has been intensely interested in all of those things since he was very young. These interests tend to ebb and flow, with him focusing on one or more at a given time, on some sort of a rotation. Two things – Lego and movies – have been a necessary part of his daily life for many years. But I wouldn’t say that he is obsessed with them, even though he loves them.
“Obsessive thoughts,” at least in Nigel’s case, generally revolve around his ideas. Nigel is a classic “idea man.” His first great idea was putting his wooden alphabet blocks together to spell the things he wanted – because he couldn’t talk. And his ideas only took off from there. Now, he has ideas about everything. But they often become obsessions – some good, some bad. Take, for example, his science-related obsession with creating fire using a magnifying glass a couple of years ago. It did not end well, and I’ll never forget his remorseful plea – “Don’t obsessions ever go away?” as he voluntarily surrendered his collection of magnifying glasses.
Potentially good obsessions include his recent idea for a school play based on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. He wanted to call it “Principal, I Shrunk the Students.” The problem was that he became so obsessed with the idea of it, centering the entire play around a Lego mini dinosaur that he wanted to use as a prop, that he lost all track of time and got home from school late, causing me to drive around looking for him. The play idea, like most of his obsessive thoughts, fell by the wayside within a few days. Seldom do they last more than a week, which is why I call them Obsessions of the Week.
Why do they fall by the wayside? It’s simply a lack of executive function. Nigel does not have executive function, so he is not able to follow through with most of his ideas. He becomes obsessed with the possibility of them, but he does not have the ability to organize his thoughts and plan out his actions to make his ideas reality. I have tried teaching him how to outline projects on paper, but he is not able to generalize from one thing to another, nor is he able to work independently for any length of time. So, most of his ideas and projects are abandoned after a few days.
Not surprisingly, this often causes him much frustration. A few weeks ago, he had another idea which turned into an obsessive thought. He wanted to plan a trip to Disneyland for all of the students in the special education program at his high school. The problem was that he wanted to do it for Spring Break, which was less than three weeks away. He went online and found out the cost of Disneyland’s admission ticket, excited because it was less than a hundred dollars. I had to remind him about transportation costs for 30-some students to travel 720 miles by bus, hotel rates, and food. The adjusted cost was much higher, and I tried to explain to him that nineteen days was probably not enough time for the students and their parents to come up with the money. Then he proclaimed that they would do car washes and bake sales, and I calculated for him how many cars they would need to wash or how many cookies they would need to sell each day to raise enough funds for the trip. He suggested that they should wash cars on weekdays, during school, not just weekends. I didn’t even go into the fact that seasonal timing was not on his side – a car wash in February in Oregon? But he would not let it go. He was obsessed; he went on about it for a week. And no matter how gently I tried to let him down, he could not comprehend that nineteen days (or twelve) was not enough time to plan a trip involving fundraising. Finally, I think his sped teacher at his school was able to get him to realize that something of that scope wasn’t going to happen when he wanted it. He came home, thoroughly dejected, typed the following on his computer, printed it out, and handed it to me: I might as well just accept and pay for my mistake. I’ll never again make new ideas. Here is an excerpt from The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe that I’ll say before I go into self pity: “And my soul from out that window, that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted, NEVERMORE.”
The good news is that his teacher is helping him to plan an end-of-the-school-year day trip to a local attraction, so he’s feeling a lot better. And hopefully the experience will help him to realize that we can have great ideas, but unless we allow enough time to organize and plan for them, they’re only going to be obsessive thoughts. And for my idea man, with all of his marvelous ideas, that would truly be a pity.