Of strengths and obsessions…

by | Autism, Parenting

Taz loves trains. There’s nothing more certain in his life then that statement. It seems that we have lucked out because he has an obsession that is in the list of ‘acceptable interests’. Not only do most kids love them, but even adults. My dad loved the old steam trains, as does Charlie Brown. There are clubs full of people who love both the model kind and the life-sized ones. In fact, there are retirees who happily repair and restore them, and make them available for viewing at museums everywhere in the world.

The great advantage with this for Taz is the availability of clubs and opportunities in places where people can teach him more then we know about the history, range and operation of this fabulous form of public transport. Rides on steam trains, Puffing Billy, museums, expos and even an abundance of YouTube videos will support his obsession for years to come. His first great obsession was balks, another great universal, because there are balls everywhere. Balls also come in all sorts of colours, sizes, textures and even with flashing lights, so they were a fabulous teaching tool. Even his obsession with splashing water didn’t make him a standout, and what kid doesn’t like puddles? Aside from the mess involved, his obsessive relationship with craft items has also been quite acceptable in the world, and the coins he collected as a young fellow were looked at with interest by many.
It isn’t always this apparently functional though… He has been obsessive about lids, feathers, glow sticks, rocks, shells and other things that show a tendency toward hoarding. Sure, there’s no harm in collecting lids, or feathers, or even glow sticks, but when it converts to an incredible desire to obtain these things and keep every single one, plus having a haphazard storage plan, he has a bedroom which resembles a rubbish tip. We have had conversations about NOT keeping the every single wet, muddy and partially de-composed feather, and it took me a couple of years to convince him to start throwing out glow sticks that no longer glowed. He still has a collection of the connectors though.
The obsessive nature makes it difficult to clear things out once the actual obsession has passed too. He passionately argues for the retention of collections of papers, pipe-cleaners, googley-eyes and cut out shapes while he no longer dedicates any time to craft. It’s not like I could just throw them all out when he is at school either. If I did that, he would be happy to dive through the bin and get them back, and a huge ball of anxiety that his world was disrupted would often turn into a meltdown.
Even functional obsessions are interruptive. When he was a toddler, I feared being down near the train crossing at peak hour because leaving was almost impossible. Sure, most kids want to watch the trains, but I was trapped with a screaming child every time the crossing bells sounded (even at the next crossing up, which he could also hear), and often left walking slowly backwards so that he could see the train passing in the distance. He still becomes non-responsive when we take the car somewhere where we have previously gone on the train, and he corners anyone and everyone to teach them about this fabulous form of transport. It has its advantages mind you. Now that he can read, and collects timetables and maps, he can plan journeys on multiple modes of transport, even interstate. I’m wondering if this will be complimented by his learning Manderin at school, so one day he can guide us around the public transport in China. His birthday party consisted of a train trip to the city, where we visited a hobby shop (and he bought Lego train track, while one of his friends salivated over the model planes), then we bought ice cream, before the highlight of the train trip home. So you see, not only is his main obsession functional, and acceptable, but it’s also useful. As is his love of numbers, reading, and his obsessive tenacity to reach certain goals. He got his pen license on Friday. He had decided that he was doing this, and we had to pry him out of the classroom as he finished the final written page to qualify. I dare say that some obsessions are far more difficult to view as strengths, or in useful ways like lids, or unused craft supplies, but when we view some of his obsessions at a strength, an area of knowledge, or a helpful tool to focus, it becomes a great way to connect him to others and make him feel useful.

If you would like to discuss the ideas in this post further, tell your story, or share your experiences, please join us on our Facebook page.
Please be respectful of others at all times. We are all on different journeys.

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