Myth Buster Friday #4

An obsession is the inability of a person to stop thinking about a particular topic or feeling a certain emotion without a high amount of anxiety. When obsessed, an individual continues the obsession in order to avoid the consequent anxiety. 

This is the definition of obsessive in psychological terms. In terms of autism, the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association…the bible for defining mental conditions) gives three defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorder, one of which is…

B.      Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):

1.       Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).

2.       Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).

3.       Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).

4.       Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

I want us to examine our perceptions a bit today…and every day.

If a young person has a special interest in dinosaurs, talks about nothing else, reads book after book after book about them, does not want to come to dinner because she is doing one of those things…then the ‘experts’ would most likely tick those boxes on the criterion for diagnosing ASD.

Fast forward twenty or thirty years though, a professional (lawyers/doctors/professors and the like) knows everything there is to know in his speciality, continues to read and update his knowledge, works 60+ hours per week, forgets to eat because he is too busy working, and has relationship issues…he is considered…dedicated. Top in his field. And rewarded for his efforts.

What is the difference, folks?

Only two that I can see…

  • Age at which specialization begins and
  • Other people’s perception.

But even age boils down to one thing…societal expectations.

We live in a highly specialized world, people. Knowledge…almost all of the accumulated wisdom of the ages are at our fingertips…on our ‘smart’ phones even. These times are different from any other in history.

Yet our belief system around what is ‘normal’ in childhood has failed to keep pace with those changes. Why exactly do our children need to learn things like multiplication tables by rote memory? In all likelihood, they will simple pull out their phone and use an app. Same with historical facts. Scientific ones too.

The days of…you need a good base of general knowledge before you specialize…are over, folks.

We live in a world that rewards two things innovation and SPECIALIZATION. The more that you combine those two, the more your potential for excelling.

Yet we continue to penalize and pathologize specialization in our young.

Look at those words a moment…




Those are judgements. Perceptions based upon societally accepted norms.

I want to ask you…

What does it really hurt a young person to specialize?

Is it anymore harmful to a child than it is to that professional? Why then do we reward one and label the other?

Why can parents not accept and foster their child’s special interest? Maybe she will outgrow it (PanKwake has with several) and maybe it will become a rewarding hobby or career.

But the truth is we do serious damage to their developing self-esteem when we try to ‘snuff out obsessions’, ‘extinguish stimming/repetitive behaviors’, or ‘desensitize’ to sounds, touch, and the like as at least one major autism ‘therapy’ attempts to do.

I feed PanKwake’s. I do all that I can to encourage her brilliant mind to explore every path that interests her. And she is a stronger, smarter, more confident person for it.

These are just a FEW of PanKwake’s ‘collections’, special interests, and sensory preferences. Many of these from the time during which she was undergoing that horrid diagnosis process.

You have no idea how many pictures I have of sand castles, Lego tower blocks, and iPad apps. Everything had to saved. She needed a ‘record’ of her creations. She needed to know that if her Lego’s fell then she could put them back…exactly as they were.

I began taking photographs because she would get so upset when someone messed with one of her ‘creations.’ That is the polite way of saying…meltdown time. Of course, ALL humans do! We all get upset when something happens to our pet projects. But the difference was the magnitude.

Once we started taking photographs though…that almost never happened. She never lost those sand castles. It even got to the point that she took pleasure in jumping on…or letting other children do so. A simple accommodation freed her to take more pleasure.

Last night, she asked me to print off dozens of the anime characters she has created using a computer graphics game. She wants them laminated and hung on the wall in PinkTopia. Isn’t that what the art world would call a ‘show’?

Obsession? Restrictive interest? Or Specialization?

I ask you again…what’s the difference?

Your viewpoint. That’s all!

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