Making Sense of Novelty and Obsession, in Autism (aka, Questioning the Circle)

Over the years I have tried to understand my son’s obsessive interests; to get insight to what motivates and interests him, and to find windows into his own world. In past posts I have expressed my efforts to see patterns of meaning and evolution in his interests; theorizing – for example – that it was “the circle” that intrigued him, as his interests shifted from spinning wheels, to clocks and time, and now indeed to an intense interest in the movement of the planets. I have shared the idea that perhaps it is the predictability of the circle – and of these manifestations of circularity (turning, time) – that draws him in, since that predictable circle movement perhaps appeals to his need for foreknowledge and order in a disordered world.

I did wonder if I was imposing my own overly convoluted conceptions (this idea of him being able to see time as linked to circles), over the top of his more simple attraction to these things; if perhaps I was over-thinking something that was really far more obvious and / or simple, in my effort to understand this different mind. My theory might get in the way of really understanding what was driving him and interesting him so much in these topics. So as much as possible I try to maintain an open mind while I observe and love this boy, whilst also actively trying to make sense of why he does what he does.

And so today, I was pleased to find myself challenged in my understanding of what might be driving my son, when I read a post called “How do people with ASD really feel about novelty,” by Emily at “Mosaic of Minds.” In that post, Emily shares some very interesting questions about how to reconcile movements between intense interests, with the common thought that autistic people shun novelty.

In the post she mentions the idea that types of interests evolve with growing intellectual maturity – say a movement from interest in an object to interest in a topic – which would make sense for my evolution-circle-theory I came up with for my son.

But what drives that choice to move from wheels to clocks to planets? Is it that he lost interest in the previous topics (as Emily says, “ASD people periodically change their special interests, adding new ones and dropping old ones.”) I don’t see it in this way, at least not for my boy. He still loves wheels and clocks while his planet obsession grows, he just spends more time actively asking about and interacting with the latest topic. He hasn’t dropped the old topics and moved on, per se.

Of course this doesn’t mean other autistic children (and adults) don’t do exactly that: drop old topics and move on to unrelated new ones. But I would find it extremely interesting to see progression lists of intense interests. I know many autistic children start by obsessively spinning and collecting wheels. I also know there are strong stereotypes of older autistic children enjoying machinery and trains, which again, are variations on the wheel theme. Dinosaurs are an example Emily brings up, which would interrupt the pattern though.

Perhaps we need to ask at exactly what point the new obsessions (and I make no apology for using that word, obsessions is the word I want), come to the fore. Why it was that the “new” topic caught the eye and imagination. Is it a underappreciated desire for novelty that drives it, or is it really after-all just an expression – albeit an evolving one with intellectual maturity – of the need for predictability. To put it another way, is the movement itself between obsessions, merely just a modified expression of that need for sameness, rather than evidence of the contrary?

Obsessions are just one aspect – one reflection – of the autistic desire for predictability, certainty, and order. There are many other ways my son seeks out certainty in his everyday life, and he copes much better in his daily life when it runs to a strong routine and when it comes with advanced warning of any breaks from routine (don’t we all?) The way of course that his need for routine differs so much from joe-average, is that without it he can enter meltdown and have harmful anxiety reactions, and his ability to cope with change in general is significantly impaired compared to others.

However, my son is just one autistic individual, and I have heard stories too – though far more rarely – of autistic children who actively and joyfully seek out newness. At its extreme, “wandering” comes to mind as a possible (and all too common) example of the desire to seek change and newness. It is hard to reconcile the urge to wander and obliviousness to danger, alongside some wider need for total predictability.

I think it helps to remember (as an illustration) the divisions between “sensory seeking” and “sensory avoiding” to try to make sense of such differences, in that they’re both sensory processing issues that a single individual can contain (my son is a supposedly mix of sensory seeking and sensory avoiding in differing contexts for example); that what matters is observing and understanding that information about someone, in order to better help them and keep them safe and happy. What I’m trying to say is that in some ways autistic people might actively seek newness, and in other ways strongly avoid it, but perhaps they’re both expressions of issues with coping with change in ways that are unhelpful or restrictive (or depending on your view-point and experience, supremely advantageous).

I have more questions than answers right now (clearly). And if this post reads somewhat like a muddy stream of consciousness, that’s because it is. I’m trying to better understand my son, to better understand autism, and to better understand the human mind more generally along the way. Why my son obsesses over circles and wheels and clocks and planets is an interesting topic for me, but whatever the reason for his interests – and whatever deeper truths it might hint at about autism – I will continue to, and always will, share in his passions and be glad that he enjoys and learns so much from them too.

(The two latest things I learnt thanks to my son: How much nonillion is, and the difference between a sidereal and a solar day. It’s never too late to learn something new 🙂 )

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4 Responses to Making Sense of Novelty and Obsession, in Autism (aka, Questioning the Circle)

  1. Wow, glad to help think this through, and thanks for linking to my post. 🙂 His interests do sound remarkably similar to each other, so maybe there is an underlying, evolving interest there? What has he said on the subject? From what he’s said about nonillion and solar days, he sounds like he’d be pretty articulate once you get him started on a subject he’s interested in!

    The spinning thing is interesting–I wonder if there’s something about the motion that some people on the spectrum find beautiful? I know Temple Grandin’s talked about spinning a coin and getting entranced by the beauty of it, although she also said she was focusing on it to shut out loud noises that hurt her ears…

    • Unfortunately my son isn’t as articulate as perhaps comes off from this post; he isn’t able to explain to me why he likes what he likes (I have asked before), and he didn’t tell me what nonilliam is or the difference between those types of days, those were pieces of information I had to learn for myself in order to answer his endless questions about planets.

      Again, you raise an interesting question about spinning, which is surely linked in some way to the circle (predictability) theme. I’ll give that further thought too.

      Thank you for your stimulating original post, and for coming over to comment here 🙂

  2. As far as I can tell, the autistic learning style is about exploring the local area and aggregating details until they can go from specific to general. Obsessions and ‘wandering’ would be part of that. If they didn’t have narrow interests they would be overwhelmed with details. I find this a really interesting post when you see ‘foraging’ in the abstract sense of foraging for information:

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