Is An Obsession Always a Bad Thing?
Ever notice how judgment of behavior varies between those who are perceived as neurologically typical (NT) and those who are not? The choir director at a church where I once sang, had a son who was totally attracted to drums from a very young age. When he was eighteen months old, his mother had to hold on to him tightly, because every time she let him loose, he would run to the church drum set. Now if he had been diagnosed as autistic, that would have been called perseveration. He might have been strongly urged toward another activity or at least emphatically chastened to leave things that didn't belong to him alone. By the time this particular child was eight, he played drums at least as well as most adult drummers and could fill in with the adult church band. What might have been called perseveration in a child with autism, was perseverance in an NT, something to be lauded and celebrated.
So where do you draw the line, and about what do you draw it? Can one be a truly excellent musician without spending every available moment practicing? Is it terrible to believe in a place for everything and everything in its place? Is it wrong to want to spend every waking hour in front of a computer? Is it bad to pursue an interest that fascinates you but bewilders your parents?
The answer is not a matter of diagnosis. The difference between perseverance and perseveration is whether it interferes with the quality of your life or enriches it, whether or not you have a label. To pursue music, art, or even cleanliness with a passion and end up with a successful career, is a good thing. To obsess over Fermat's Last Theorem until you prove it and win a Fields Prize, is a good thing. To obsess over the perfect cookie and end up with millions in sales is a good thing. To obsess over a computer to the point where you teach yourself to type, even if you can't talk, is a good thing. To obsess over the treatment of cattle until you become one of the world's leading experts is a good thing.
If you can't leave the house in the morning because you are afraid your toy cars might not be lined up just right, it is not a good thing. If you can't eat in restaurant unless you get the one table where you're willing to sit, it's not a good thing. If your food preferences limit your diet to the point where you become malnourished, it is not a good thing. If you are so obsessed with your appearance that you have to get up three hours early to get your hair and makeup right, it is not a good thing. If you insist on picking your friends depending on whether they agree with your taste in music, or cheer for the same team, it may not be a good thing.
One of the criteria for diagnosing autism is narrow interests, but it certainly does not tell the whole story. In the first of the set of paragraphs above, there are people who have been diagnosed with autism and some who have not. You could probably think of a name or two. In the second there are some who would be diagnosed with autism or OCD, or both, and those who would not.
Some with autism have savant skills in music, art, math, computers, or other bents that may be more off the wall. Sometimes parents latch on to those as a hope for a good life for their son or daughter. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't. Savant skills and the obsessions that can accompany them can be positive, but not in a vacuum. Everyone requires at least a few living skills too. A form of communication is essential, whether verbal or by some other means. If a person can write a symphony but not make their basic needs understood, they are not going to have a great life. Similarly, an artist who can detect the tiniest detail in an object and reproduce it, but is painfully overcome with sensory bombardment, will live in constant agony. The skill, the obsession, can be great, but the failure to look at the other aspects necessary for a comfortable existence, can be a disaster.
A person, with or without autism, is a whole being with many facets. Characteristics, whether valued by the world at large or not, must be evaluated on the basis of whether they make a contribution to a complete and fulfilling life.