Tag 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.

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!

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.

Sibling Angst


Aidan: Why the heck, Nigel, is your stick in my room?

I overheard Aidan say this last night as I was walking down the hall, and I empathized. I, too, have found Nigel’s sticks in many places throughout the house, including the kitchen, the living room, the car, my desk, and my bed. Nigel’s stick obsession has probably been lifelong, and to the best of my knowledge, neither he nor anyone around him has ever lost an eye, thank God. I’m not sure where this obsession stemmed from, but it’s most assuredly not abating any time soon. And I bet one of the things he loves about Scouts is being able to handle sticks on a regular basis.

But the real reason I’m writing this post tonight is to highlight Aidan. He’s been feeling a little like second fiddle lately, aware of all the writing I’ve been doing about Nigel on this site, even though I’m careful to minimize the screen when he (Aidan) comes in the room. He’s been pretty verbal about his feelings, too, accusing me of going easy on Nigel and not being fair, playing favorites. I try to spend as much alone-time with Aidan as possible, let him know how loved and important he is, but I can imagine it must be so hard for him. What’s not fair is that he’s the younger brother and he always feels like the older brother. What’s not fair is that as much as I try to ease the difficulty of him having a brother with special needs, it’s still there. And it always will be.

Siblings are the unsung heroes of the special needs realm. Parents, therapists, caregivers, and teachers are openly praised – and deservedly so – for all their efforts with those they work with and care for. But the siblings are not often highlighted, and they should be. Some siblings have had to share a room for years and learned to tolerate and sleep through the noises and habits of someone who doesn’t talk, or whose speech is echolalic. Some siblings have gone to the same school and had kids come up to them, many times, to say, “Did you hear what your brother did today?” And in spite of all that and so much more, they take it in stride and learn to love this person who seems so different and strange and often annoying. The siblings know that even if they’d like to poke their autistic brothers in the eye with the very sticks they leave in their rooms, it’s just another thing they’ll have to live with, and they do. Maybe not without exasperation, but with acceptance nonetheless.

Aidan, I’m so proud of you.

Obsession of the Week

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.