My son’s obsessions are a part of his autism (as recognised under both DSM-IV and the future DSM-5). He was quite typical with his original fixations; the classic autistic child lying with his head on the floor, eyes level with the wheels on his toy cars, while he watched the wheels spin.
This intense and repetitive fixation / obsession, has evolved (and I purposefully use the word “evolved,” I’ll expand on that soon), from vehicle wheels, to clocks to globes. But always, the fixation has come as a double-edged sword: Whatever he is obsessed with has immense power to both calm him, and drive him to high levels of anxiety. From a parenting perspective, I can use his interests to calm him, reward him, and motivate him, but I have to balance this “power” carefully; if I indulge it excessively his anxieties attached to the object in question also escalate and he disengages more with the people and the world around him.
My son has always been the driving force behind the evolution of his interests. He gets exposed to a range of different things and ideas in the world on a daily basis; what he chooses to latch on to next is his own decision. I have seen him gently and slowly let go of previous fixations, after many months of directing his every day towards the item and finding ways to integrate it into his world. I’ve learnt at those times to keep an eye out for his next obsession.
For example, he stopped insisting that every time we visited his grandma and great grandma, that they get out and give him every watch or clock in the house. But just as he was letting that go, he shifted to wanting to see and talk about their calendars, eventually asking to touch and keep them too. Thus began (and still continues) his calendar fixation. His bedroom currently has five calendars in it.
He becomes quite precise in his fixations though; it’s not simply the object in itself, it’s the deeper meaning or function. By which I mean, he didn’t just want clocks, he wanted clocks that worked and told the correct time. He doesn’t just want calendars, he wants calendars that have the correct month showing for the correct year. (So kindly relatives who have gifted him calendars from previous years, have put me in the position of having to change all the days along the top of each month, to match the actual date to day of the week for 2011.)
If the clock didn’t tell the correct time, or the month shows the wrong day, it can be source of anxiety or upset instead of joy. It’s not like this at the beginning of a fixation; before he has learnt the deeper meaning and function of such items, he obviously can’t identify when they are faulty. That move (or “inner-evolution” if you will) towards requiring precision within the obsessional object, is of course evidence of enhanced understanding (and perhaps evidences the pre-waning of that fixation, ready for a shift to the next? I don’t know, that thought has only just occurred to me as I write it.)
This preference for precision even goes back to his fixation on vehicle wheels. One of the first signs to me that he had a deeper awareness than what I’d previously been aware of in him, was the day he brought me the correct wheels to go with the correct vehicles, prior to being able to functionally use language (see my post on this story, from my previous blog, entry from Jan 17th 2009). So it wasn’t just “wheels” that got him excited; you couldn’t just give him a wheel to play with and expect happiness, neither could you give him a vehicle with the wrong wheels and expect him not to care about the error.
Over the years he has fixated on things that turn; wheels, clocks, and now world globes too. But where do calendars fit in you may be wondering. This is what I have found particularly interesting lately in trying to understand and find patterns in his interests (as I am prone to do, both as his mother and more simply, as a human being). Calendars, like clocks, and the rotations of the world represented in globes, measure time; initially, in the form of turning.
That turning, and time, is predictable; I have mentioned in previous posts on his fixations that I’ve thought he was attracted to the things he is because they represent and provide predictability. But more than that, I have realised, turning seen in time qua time, also provides an organising mechanism for his world. An order of events, a way to see where he was before and where he is now. A way to understand what has happened and what will happen. Thereby also bringing more predictability into his life, not just providing a thing of predictability in itself (like watching a wheel turn).
And so, his interest in things that turn, has evolved into an interest in time – and the measurement of time – more generally. And in quite remarkable ways. He knows how to read time (he learnt roman numerals in that regard too). He knows all the days of the week, and months of the year, in order. He has taken an interests in and is coming to understand the changing seasons. He is now beginning to comprehend the world as a globe, with countries as representative of actual locations, and I think he is starting to appreciate that the space between those countries then represent distance (and therefore, ultimately, time taken to travel, which we also discuss sometimes).
He continues to obsess over related notions of time, that have spun off from his interest in time as represented by turning: Specifically, life and all its stages, including death. We still have regular conversations about what kills people, who in his family is alive and dead, and who is likely to be alive in reference to his own future ages (will mummy or grandma or his brother still be alive when he is 70, and so on). (Here’s my previous post about some of those previous life / death conversations).
Such interesting discussions would not have been possible without the immense growth in his language over the past two years. Just yesterday I was reading in my personal journal about him mastering the joint expression “I want,” but really struggling to learn the next phrase, “I see.” This was when he was four years old (February 2010 was the date of that entry). You can just imagine the leap from “I want” to discussions of life and death, 18 months later! Considering the challenges he faces, I find it quite astounding.
Without that language – and indeed the improved social skills – I wonder if his fixations would have evolved in the same way. And if they did, would I have understood the real interest and understanding he had about those items, or would I have thought them random rather than evolutions of interest? If he had taken on a fixation with calendars, would I have seen it then as connected to a deeper interest in “circular” time, or as unconnected?
I have learnt to expect more of him, as he keeps living up to and then exceeding my expectations. So too, I have learnt to find more meaning and function in his intense interests. Am I reading more into them than is actually there; is this connection I see with time my own construct I’ve overlayed on his interests..? Maybe. Maybe what draws him to these things is far less complex, or far more complex. I don’t think my misunderstanding (if it is that) matters at this point, since I let him largely drive his own fixations. I should clarify that I would never encourage fixations qua fixations, considering their often intense down-sides, but neither do I try to break his interests since they are great learning opportunities and motivators. As I said earlier in this post, it’s a fine line to walk sometimes as a parent of an autistic child.
And so I will continue to observe and try to understand what he is passionate about. One day, probably far off, he will have the words and concepts to explain to me why he is so drawn to such things, and why his obsessions shift when they do. Until then, the world keeps spinning anyway, and I will do my best to understand and make the most of this ride with him, through circular time.