I’m actually not sure if “obsessiveness” is the best word for this category, but I couldn’t come up with a better word that encompassed everything mentioned by the second criterion in the DSM-IV for Asperger’s syndrome:

Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:

Another “multiple choice” criterion.  The manual lists four traits that fall under this category:

1.  Encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus.

I was reading through this information with my Mom the other day, and I told her that while this trait does describe me, I wasn’t sure that I was that unusual in having specific “special interests”– everyone is fascinated by different things from a very young age; that’s one thing that makes people so interesting.

Then she reminded me that she didn’t think most people could name their 70 favorite video games.  I had to admit– that probably does indicate an abnormal intensity and focus in that interest!  ; )  As does my ranking of all 176 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation from best to worst.

As did my childhood love of street maps and traffic lights.  I actually guided my grandparents from my house to the hospital in Philadelphia at the age of 4 when my little brother was born because I knew all the roads and traffic lights on the way there.  A couple years later, I would start drawing my own maps showing imaginary roads for my bicycle to follow around the yard.

Online, I’ve often seen these referred to as “special interests.”  Spending time studying something that is a special interest to me can be one of the most relaxing things I can do.  It’s like returning to a room where everything is familiar and I can orient myself because I can understand everything there.

For instance, I enjoy keeping track of the NFL season standings, applying the complex tiebreakers to figure out how to rank the 16 teams in each conference so that I can see which 6 are in playoff position each week.  I like trying to figure out the playoff scenarios for each week before the NFL publishes them– sometimes I get them right, and sometimes I miss a step; they are quite complicated.  I’m sure most football fans are content to just wait for the official scenarios to come out– or even to just wait until the end of the season to find out which teams will be in the playoffs.  But I actually find it relaxing and fun to calculate them myself.

I love finding patterns in things like sports statistics.  A few examples:

  • There is only one team in the NFL that has won an inter-conference game every season since 1970:  the Cincinnati Bengals!
  • Until this year, the winner of the AFC North division was always the third-place finisher from the prior season.
  • Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays made the postseason; they were the last MLB franchise that had never been there.  This spring, the Charlotte Bobcats and Columbus Blue Jackets both have a chance to make the postseason; they are the only NBA and NHL franchises that have never been there.  If they do, the Houston Texans had better make the NFL postseason, or they will be the only major American pro sports franchise that hasn’t been there!

Having an intense, specific special interest can be negative or positive.  Sometimes it can isolate you from other people if you want to share something that you really enjoy, but there’s no way to get them to see your interest as anything other than weird trivia.  (And part of participating in a conversation is understanding that people have different interests, and not just wanting to talk about your own.)  I’ve seen some people with Asperger’s post that they were fascinated by something like historic serial killers, which doesn’t usually make for a very good conversation-starter.

On the other hand, having such an interest can make you an expert in that little area.  Sometimes you can find a way to use that interest to develop your talents, build a career, or do something amazing.  If you have a passion for your area of expertise that nothing can quench, it can give you an advantage because working on it might not even feel like work.

My interest in following sports didn’t really begin in earnest until my late high school and early college years, but I’m thankful for it because it means I have at least one of the standard “small talk” topics to fall back on:  sports.  It gives me a way to start a conversation, especially if I know where someone is from.  For instance, if I meet someone from Seattle, I might ask them if they’re excited that Ken Griffey Jr. is back with the Mariners, or if they are sad about the SuperSonics leaving for Oklahoma, or who they think the Seahawks will take in the draft.  (As a Steelers fan, I would try not to bring up Super Bowl XL, knowing that might be a sensitive issue for Seattle residents.)

Of course, if they tell me that they don’t like sports, it might take me a little while to come up with something else to talk about, but it’s still a nice start.

Having intense, focused interests seems to be an outworking of the way my brain operates.  My brain naturally tends to zero in on a single topic or task.  I find that sometimes this lets me keep at a task without getting bored as easily as others (drawing an icon pixel by pixel in MS Paint, for example.), but it also means that I have a lot of trouble with multitasking.  If something distracts me, it is very hard for me to focus.  If I am interrupted in the middle of a task, I feel anxious until I can complete it (doubly so if I am interrupted in the middle of the interruption), and I often find it exhausting just knowing that I have something coming up on my schedule.

There’s more I can say here, but I’ll save that for another post.  Let’s move on to the second trait:

2.  Apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals.

This trait reminds me more of the compulsive side of obsessive-compulsiveness, and I have to say that I’m not sure if I can think of a good example of this.  I certainly like to have a set routine, and I become anxious if things become unpredictable, but I haven’t noticed this leading to “nonfunctional routines or rituals,” either while I was young or now.  I think most of my struggles have remained within my own thoughts without being very apparent from the outside.

3.  Stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements).

These sorts of behaviors are often called “stims.”  I tend to do some of these things when I become nervous or excited.  You might see me flutter one of my hands from side to side by quickly turning my wrist, or wringing my hands, or rocking slightly in my seat.  It’s pretty much an unconscious thing.  If I become aware that I’m doing something like this, I can stop, but I can’t prevent myself from starting again once I’m not thinking about my body language anymore.  Overall, these stims are pretty mild.

Another behavior that seems to go along with Asperger’s is toe-walking (actually walking on the balls of the feet).  I have done this since when I was very young, and I still toe-walk at times without realizing it.  Thankfully, it has not impaired my ability to walk normally, as can happen.  It is a very strange thing to go along with Asperger’s, isn’t it?  I have no idea why it does!

4.  Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.

This one is pretty vague; I don’t really understand what separates it from #1.  Maybe it’s talking about something like keeping track of license plates or hood ornaments on cars, or ISBN numbers on books?  I don’t know.  I don’t think this one fits me.

Well, thanks again to those who are reading.  Two criteria down, four to go!

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