Category Archives: Obsessions

The Idea Man

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.

Coming Home

It used to be, up until less than two years ago, that my favorite time of day was in the evening, when the boys went to bed, and I had an hour or two before my own bedtime. The day was over, and I had a sliver of time to myself to read, meditate, write (if I had the energy), or watch a movie. And it wasn’t just the time to myself that I loved, it was the security in knowing that my children were safe and (usually) well, and that we had made it through another day. All was right in my little corner of the world.

I still love the evenings and the sense of peace and comfort that they bring. But my favorite time of day has changed. It’s now 3:40 PM. That’s my new serenity time.

I get off work at 3:00 and head home, stopping to pick up the mail at our local post office, since I am among many in our small town who do not have mail delivery to our homes. I am usually home around 3:20, alone except for the cats, who rub against my leg to welcome me (or, as I’ve read, to mark territory, but affectionately so). I set my things down and go put on my slippers as part of my little transitional routine. Then I sort and read the mail until 3:30, when Aidan arrives. He comes through the front door, calls out “Hi, Mom,” and I go over to give him a hug and breathe in the scent at the top of his head. Home. One down, one to go.

Usually within ten minutes, by 3:40, Nigel comes through the back door, after he has put his bike away in the shed.  As soon as I hear that door open and shut, I breathe a sigh of relief. The route is less than two miles, but any number of things could go wrong. Once, a few months ago, he had been delayed due to bike problems and called me on his cell to ask me to come and get him. And so, when he wasn’t home by 3:50 one day last week, I thought at first that perhaps it was because of bike trouble again. I waited for the phone to ring, but it didn’t. When the clock struck four, I was out the door. I instructed Aidan to man the phone and to call me on my cell if Nigel called or came home.

I drove his usual route, checking down side streets to see if he had stopped to talk to someone or pet a cat. Then, about a third of the way, I saw him riding toward me (thank God), and I pulled over. He came up to me, breathless, and launched into a monologue about how he’d stayed after school to talk to his new drama teacher about a play that he wanted to write and produce based on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. He had that dazed, New Obsession look in his eye, and I groaned inwardly. In his present state, he could not fathom that I had been worried, that he should have called. Midway through his prop ideas, I gently cut him off, saying that we needed to get home and he could finish telling me there. “Okay,” he said, and started off. “But take your time! We’re not racing!” I yelled out quickly.

We got home, and as I climbed out of the car, he rode up and started in again about the play, right there in the driveway. “Put your bike away, and let’s go inside to talk about it,” I said gently, but business-like. And he did.

I got in the house, still feeling the uncomfortable effects of the adrenaline, and called out to Aidan that Nigel was back. I collapsed on the couch, and he came inside a moment later. I stood in front of him and put my arms around his unbending frame before he could start talking. “I’m glad you’re home safe,” I said. “I was worried because you were late, and you didn’t call to let me know.”

He got it. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. It was one of the rare times he’d said “I’m” in front of “sorry.” He said that he got so excited with talking to his teacher about his ideas for the play that he didn’t think to call. Of course, I’d figured that’s what had happened the moment I first saw his face, lost in a new obsession. I know that look.

He drank some water then, and sat on the couch to finish telling me his ideas. After a few minutes, he got up and announced that he was going to his room to start writing the script. I sat there on my couch that I love, listening to the sounds of my boys happily preoccupied in their rooms. Home. My favorite time of day might have come a little later that day, but there it was. I sat and breathed deeply, enjoying my moment of peace, security, and serenity.

Deepest Desire

The Scene:  Interior of a suburban family home. The autistic teen has been spending most of a Saturday afternoon in his bedroom, at his computer, playing a CD-Rom game in which the player constructs and runs a Jurassic Park-themed attraction. He has owned this game for about eight years and goes through phases in which he plays it for days on end, and then moves on to some other Obsession of the Week. But he never lets more than a few weeks go by without playing this game again. It is his favorite “video” game. He studies the screen now, makes some changes to the sauropods’ feeding schedule, and gets up out of his chair. He walks down the hall and enters a room on the right – his mother’s office. She sits at her desk staring at her computer screen; spreadsheets surround her. He stands at the open door, and she looks over at him with an expression of confused amusement as he makes his announcement.

Autistic teen:  My deepest desire is to build a Jurassic Park and have a girlfriend.

Mother: Okay. We’ll see what we can do.

A Good Soldier

Seven years ago, Nigel started a tradition at age eight that we still observe today. Every Veterans Day, when I get home from work (because I don’t work for the postal service), we go to our local cemetery “to pay our respects,” Nigel says. He didn’t say that the first few years we went (because he couldn’t), but I’m sure the sentiment was always there. It was his idea, after all.

From a young age, Nigel has been interested in military history. He has books on at least eight major wars, does research online, and watches the History Channel. It’s become somewhat of an obsession. But even before he got his books and computer, he had a deep, abiding respect for soldiers. He knows that his father was in the Army, as well as his grandfather. Two of his great-grandfathers were Marines who served in World War II. And he had two great-great-grandfathers who fought in World War I. But long before he knew any of this, he came to me on Veterans Day and asked if we could go to the cemetery.

I remember that day, sunny, but cool. I marveled at his request – “Can we go to the cemetery?” – worded so well at a time when he still had great difficulty with sentence structure and correct pronoun usage. Ordinarily, he might have asked, “You go to the cemetery?” because he constantly said “you” when he meant “I.” But this was clearly to be a joint venture.

“Sure,” I told him, wondering what he had in mind. “Go get your jacket on.” And he ran off to do so.

Our little town is one of the older towns in southern Oregon, and our cemetery has tombstones from the 1800s in it. As we strolled through the entrance gate, I glanced up at the sunlight filtering through the trees, took a deep breath, and began leisurely browsing the gravesites. Nigel’s gait, however, was more purposeful. He strode down the main walkway and made a beeline for the military marker closer to the rear of the cemetery. I quickened my pace to keep up.

As we neared the stone and metal memorial marker, I noticed two men seated on a bench next to it. I hoped that Nigel wouldn’t start climbing on the five-foot-high marker. In those days, I had no idea what to expect from him. But I needn’t have worried.

He stood in front of it and saluted.

My breath caught in my throat, but I had to quickly regain my composure because one of the men had asked Nigel a question, something about having family in the military. And Nigel, characteristically of that time, was not responding. I walked over and briefly laid out the family history.

“I was in Vietnam,” the man said.

Nigel immediately turned to him. He made eye contact with a complete stranger, and then Nigel began to slowly unzip his own jacket. Again, I wondered what to expect. I stood at the ready, not sure if I’d be translating or intervening or explaining. I’ve had to do so much of that over the years, in so many situations.

Nigel unzipped his jacket down to his abdomen, and then slowly, deliberately, using both hands he pulled his jacket to the sides of his chest, a la Superman, to reveal his shirt. It was green camouflage. When I had sent him to get his jacket before leaving the house, unbeknownst to me, he had changed shirts. And he reverently showed it to the veteran in his presence.

“Ohh!” the man exclaimed, chuckling. “You wanna be a soldier too?”

Nigel nodded.

“Well, I bet you’ll be a good one.”

I thanked the man and bid him a good day, and Nigel and I began to walk home through the filtered sunlight, fallen leaves crunching beneath our feet. I put my arm around him and told him that I was proud of him for being so respectful. And I knew, without a doubt, that whether he ever enters the military or not, Nigel would always be a good soldier.

Some Incredibly Important Trivia

The Scene: A history-loving, trivia-quoting autistic teen is showing his mother the two-dollar bill that his grandmother gave him for Easter. He had just recently watched National Treasure, one of his favorite movies, for probably the twentieth time, so he is full of US history trivia, both from the movie and from research he has done on his own for his Obsession of the Week. The mother, and other extended family members, are accustomed to the autistic teen being a storehouse of information, especially about history and movies, and will often consult his expertise to settle a dispute or answer a question. The guy knows his stuff. And he often likes to quiz his family members on the trivia to see what they know. So he shows his mother the two-dollar bill, pointing out all the Mason symbols and the two different presidents on it, etc.

Autistic teen: Look at this painting on the back. Do you know what it is?

Mother: It looks like the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Autistic teen: That’s right. And do you know who painted it?

Mother: No.

Autistic teen (pauses): Neither do I.

Mother (trying not to laugh): YOU don’t know?

Autistic teen (smiling slightly): I can’t possibly know everything.

Obsessions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I loved tigers when I was a child. I collected tiger stickers and books about tigers; I lived for Wild Kingdom episodes about tigers. In fact, I still love tigers. In adulthood I’ve acquired two four-foot-long stuffed tigers, various tiger photographs and wall art, and even a tiger tattoo. It’s really the only obsession that’s stayed with me into adulthood. During childhood, I went through various flash-in-the-pan obsessions. I had my rainbow phase, my unicorn phase, my I-must-be-adopted-and-I’m-really-a-long-lost-princess phase. When I was interested in those things, I lived, ate, slept, and breathed them until they ran their course.  

Because of this, I completely understand my son’s Obsessions of the Week. Unlike his lifelong Lego obsession, the Obsessions of the Week don’t last too long and then fade into the background. They are often revived, and never completely abandoned, but they also never exist with the same intensity as their initial flare. Some are all-but abandoned, meaning that even though Nigel is no longer obsessed with them, he refuses to part with their physical manifestations. Take, for example, his popsicle stick obsession. I always thought that he was keeping them for one of his projects, and when he never made anything, I asked him if we could get rid of them. Noooo! He was saving them because he likes the riddles printed on them. Then there was his acorn obsession. Living in a suburban area and taking many camping and hiking trips on top of that, he accumulated an entire dresser drawer full of acorns over the course of about a year, thanks to a love of Scrat from Ice Age.

His other old Obsessions of the Week fall into various categories. He became obsessed with making things that (fortunately in most cases) never materialized: his own Rube Goldberg maze, his own Jurassic Park, a homemade spacecraft, a bomb shelter, and a covered wagon. Many of his obsessions are movie-related: The Goonies, The Terminator, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Dare Devil, Spiderman and Superman, King Kong, Back to the Future. And many others are history-related: World War I and II, the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, Titanic, the Oregon Trail, Clovis people, Ancient Greece, and various natural disasters, especially involving tornados and volcanoes.

But, like me with the tigers, Nigel also has obsessions – besides Lego – that have stayed with him a remarkably long time. He is a rock collector. We have baskets of rocks of diverse sizes and types all over the house. And sticks. Nigel has a fascination for sticks that I’ve never understood. That and the trash hoarding. He has drawer-fulls of trash in his room. Food wrappers, papers, pieces of plastic, bottles, lids, cans, packaging – the list goes on. I’m not sure how to deal with this situation. I think that it’s part of his OCD symptoms, but I’ll need to look into it further and discuss it with his doctor. In any case it falls outside of the cute and manageable Obsession of the Week criteria. He also exhibits other compulsions and rituals, like having to do some things in a certain order and needing to somersault down the hallways of the house to get from room to room. Those things don’t concern me too much, but the trash does.

And so I love the easy Obsessions of the Week. Aside from having to put up with a few one-sided, rapid-fire monologues and talk down some unrealistic notions, they are cute and manageable. This week’s obsession can easily be identified by walking through the house and noting things that Nigel has left out in various rooms – pincushion, scissors, thread. He has been sewing again. He had some leftover pelts from his Chimera project and turned one of them into a furry wallet. He also made a hat for Mrs. Brisby. I always thought she looked cold in that movie. Maybe Nigel thought that too, animal lover that he is. I just thank my lucky stars he’s not one of those kids that brings home all the strays!

Space Au-dyssey

We have a new Obsession of the Week in our house. I’m not sure what prompted it (although we do own the DVD of the Jimmy Neutron movie), but Nigel is fixated on building a homemade spacecraft. He has decided that since his father has done some welding that he would be able to make it for him.

Nigel’s specifications:

“It has to be airtight. I have to study the space machines book [Ah! Mom remembers, from the trip to the library last week] so that I can learn how to make the steering thrusters. And for re-entry, it must have heat-resistant silica tiles made of high-quality sand. And I have to build a space suit with air pressure gauges and liquid-cooled undergarments.”

He spent most of yesterday leaping around the house making spaceship noises. And he has stated that his best friend is going to accompany him, so that they will both go on record as the youngest people in space. Riley, clear your schedule.

A Goonie Afternoon

Nigel’s Obsession of the Week, besides his impending Terminator Halloween costume, is the ‘80s movie The Goonies. He was introduced to this classic a few years ago and has loved it ever since. Being an extrovert, Nigel loves the friendship theme of the movie, and being autistic, he appreciates the befriending of the misunderstood, cognitively challenged character, Sloth. According to Urban Dictionary, “goonie” means “outcast” or “geek,” but also “good friend or homie.” Nigel considers himself a goonie.

After school today, he invited his NT friend Riley over to watch the movie with him. Nigel and Riley have been friends for six years, and I’m sure he has seen The Goonies with Nigel on several different occasions. Yet Riley comes over and hangs out, accepts the fact that Nigel talks and narrates throughout the movie, and just lets him be who he is. And of course, that is what good friends do. We all have our quirks, and some require a little more patience than others. But for a child, now a teen, to take it in his stride and recognize the needs of someone who’s different and care about him and spend time with him in spite of some pretty riotous quirks, well, simply put, I just love him.

They were in the kitchen at one point, taking a snack break, and I overheard Nigel say, “Do you think we’re like The Goonies? You know, friends in the same neighborhood having adventures?”

“Yeah, we are,” Riley said, biting into an apple.

“Because I’m a goonie, but you understand my difference.”

“Yeah, Nigel, I do.”

Sometimes, my heart just overflows.

Long-Distance Obsession

The last time I talked to my sons, who are visiting their father in Los Angeles, I was excited to tell them about my Mt. Shasta climb, but Nigel was more interested in telling me about his OW (Obsession of the Week): Clovis people. Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleoindian culture of North America at the end of the last ice age, about 13,000 years ago. I can tell he is rabid about it. He could talk of nothing but the obsidian spear head that he plans to make, using rocks to sharpen it, as the Clovis people did. Then he will lash it securely to the ‘spear.’ The obsidian he says he will obtain from the desert in southern California the next time his dad takes him camping; I don’t know what he plans to use for the spear. This should be interesting . . .

But it gladdened my heart to hear Nigel so wrapped up in his OW. That tells me that he is adapting to his new environment, comfortable and secure enough to let his obsessions occupy him, rather than watching videos all day and exhibiting echolalia. The best part about his obsessions is that they cause him to use a ton of spontaneous speech, and that’s something I always love to hear.

Obsession Alert

Nigel: I want our house Rube Goldberged!

Nigel came into my office late last night to tell me this. He had that wild look in his eye. When he was younger the look worried me because it was usually due to something that upset him and he could not communicate to me what it was. A scream would usually be forthcoming. These days, the wild look is more often because something has ignited him, and he goes into obsession mode. A part of me is glad to see it, because that means he is happy and engaged, but a part of me is wary because he has been known to tie strings across the entire backyard or the living room and post signs all over the house regarding his obsessions (he put up six “Fallout shelter in basement” signs during a nuclear war obsession of the week and we don’t have a basement).

And with this particular obsession, Rube Goldberg machines, there would certainly be lots of string involved. Sticks, I’m sure, would also play a major role in Nigel’s Rube Goldberg machine, as would Lego, balls, hammers, nails, many yards of tape and wire, and toilet paper tubes. And he wants to do this throughout the entire house, he told me in his excited voice.

Boy Scouts to the rescue! I dropped him off a few hours ago (Friday afternoon) with the Troop, and they are going on a camping trip. Nigel is excited about it and spent most of the day packing. They will return Sunday afternoon. With any luck, the fire of this particular obsession will dim at least slightly during his two days away from home. Otherwise I’ll have some interesting photos to post.