Why write this?
I think this is an area of autistic experience which is under-represented. I imagine this is to do with the stigma surrounding stalking behaviour. It is also a deeply emotive subject and the sort of thing which experience has taught us to keep private so I think breaking this taboo is difficult. Why talk about it at all? Because this is something which causes a lot of pain to many autistic people like myself
– here’s an example http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=144092&start=0 – and so I hope that my attempt to better understand this issue may help others.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently, particularly because an autistic friend has really been going through the mill of being obsessed with someone who doesn’t reciprocate those feelings. I’ve been there, it’s a really sucky place to be. Why do we do this to ourselves? Firstly, I’m not convinced we really have all that much choice, the saying “you don’t choose who you fall for” is especially true here and the autistic need to fixate on something is inherent to the condition.
So what do I mean by obsessions with people?
We know autistic folks do like a good obsession (or ‘special interest’ if you feel the term ‘obsession’ is pejorative, personally I have no issue with saying obsession). We know that these obsessions can get in the way of other things where the strength of obsession makes everything else pale into insignificance so if we’re asked to do something not relating to our obsession it can be really hard to drag ourselves away from it. While it clearly relates to the ‘restricted or repetitive interests or behaviour’ from the autism diagnostic criteria there’s often a comfort in obsessions. So even though this is something which is considered negative under the medical model of disability it can also be a great strength and I would argue the intensity of interest is directly responsible for many of the great talents of autistic people.
Obsessions with people however are different. Sometimes they can be with a celebrity or historical figure and I’d say these types of obsession are safer as they are simply harder to act upon unless we happen to have access to celebrities or a tardis. When the obsession is with someone you know in real life things get complicated. Unlike obsessions with something inanimate, the subject of the obsession may feel uncomfortable if they know they are the subject of such attention whereas Klingon grammar (or whatever floats your boat) simply doesn’t give a damn how often you think of it!
So what’s going on?
I can’t help but seek more of an explanation than it’s just an autism thing – autistic shit happens (this is probably related to my obsession with understanding all things autism!) Thinking about obsessions brings me to OCD. I’m no expert on OCD so I’m happy to be (kindly) corrected if anything I write about it is incorrect.
“OCD often goes undetected in persons with autism and Asperger syndrome. This is largely because of the difficulty of delineating the symptoms of OCD from those of autism, since rigid ritualistic behaviors form an integral part of autistic symptoms” (Ghaziuddin, 2005, p.160)
To my understanding the difference between OCD behaviour and autistic restricted/repetitive behaviour is that autistic stuff is enjoyable and the OCD stuff is something the person doesn’t want to do but is still compelled to. People obsessions definitely seem to often fall into the OCD category. I’m not saying there’s no pleasure in people obsessions, it can provide an escape from reality, it can provide comfort and control (if only imagined) in a confusing world, it can even be a useful tool for motivation – this person will think more of me if I work really hard… but too often the main product of it is misery and perceived rejection -why doesn’t that person feel the same way about me? This can feed into depression, particularly when combined with catastrophising – they didn’t reply, therefore I must be a terrible unlovable person, I should kill myself.
How are people obsessions perceived?
The research literature seems to focus in on stalking behaviour. Understandably stalking is a concern for the public and may lead to an autistic individual breaking the law. What little I know of autistic people coming into contact with the criminal justice system doesn’t fill me with optimism. Like any obsession it can be misunderstood and there’s many stories of an autistic person taking an obsession too far and breaking the law to get something they ‘needed’ for their obsession, here is an example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darius_McCollum
I feel that to some extent society sympathises with such people, I can even imagine NT friends describing such crimes as kinda cute *shudder*. When the obsession is with a person however I think the public perception immediately recoils in horror and mentally tags us with terms like ‘DANGEROUS!’, ‘PERVERT!’, ‘PSYCHO!’ To some extent this is understandable as we all fear what we don’t understand. I suspect research in this area is in danger of missing those of us who become (serially) obsessed with people but don’t act on it in ways which lead to being arrested.
How does it work?
I think if we are to support autistic people with obsessions with people we need to better understand this behaviour. So how does it work? I’d say it works in the same way as other obsessions. The subject of interest becomes all-encompassing and can take over every waking thought. From an early age, perhaps about aged 8, I’ve certainly had periods of my life where this was the case. I’d withdraw into a fantasy world involving that person and repeatedly replay scenarios where I somehow rescued them and gained their love. It seems clear to me that this is something of a coping tool, shutdown from reality is a great way to escape the demands of the NT world. In my mind I was in control of the situation and I could make the other person behave in any way I liked. I’d like to emphasise that obsessions with people can be sexual but they can also be more platonic, I don’t think sexual desire is a necessary ingredient here but some of the research suggests that this is a compensatory mechanism to fulfil sexual or social desires (Stokes, Newton & Kaur, 2007).
Perhaps the key to whether an obsession is harmful to others is when the autistic is compelled to act on the obsession rather than just devote too much time to thinking about the person. Some actions like googling the hell out of someone until you’ve found every last online mention of them and know an unnerving amount about their namesakes is relatively harmless provided you have the skills to keep whatever you dig up about someone to yourself (I do feel everyone has some responsibility to be aware of what they leave lying around online for people like myself to find!) Similarly stalking their Twitter feed, Tumblr etc doesn’t usually create too many issues (other than further fuelling the obsession) provided you keep your thoughts to yourself.
Is honesty really always the best policy?
One conflict which many autistic folks seem to have trouble with is the idea of not sharing the full truth with someone being tantamount to lying. This is clearly an area where being open and honest about your feelings is dangerous, it can lead to all sorts of misinterpretations, destroy trust and friendship, even lead to criminal allegations. I’d say the autistic needs to try to see the bigger picture (easier said than done!) that often more harm than good comes out of revealing such feelings to people, particularly when they are huge emotions which can scare people.
How do we define what’s appropriate behaviour?
There’s a very fine line between appropriate social or romantic behaviour and inappropriate behaviours of this sort. I often find myself asking the people in my life to help me define the boundaries of relationships because I cannot always understand these social rules. My therapist gave me a useful tool by suggesting I ask myself whether a person was a friend or just friendly. I have a habit of misinterpreting friendly behaviour for friendship. As a child I considered my teachers my friends because I felt more able to communicate on their level than with my peers. I did not understand how my teacher could not really also be my friend. Obsession takes this problem a step further as we can read too much into friendly behaviour. I use to work as a carer for a guy with autism who wanted every carer to become his girlfriend, he didn’t see the problem with this or how uncomfortable it could make us. Similarly I’d often view a teacher being kind to me or complimenting my work as a sign that we were friends rather than friendly.
Impact on autistics
Despite the persistent myths that we don’t feel anything, autistic people are no more immune to heartbreak than anyone else and there’s a reason so much artistic expression is devoted to affairs of the heart. My experience and reading make me lean increasingly towards an Intense World Syndrome (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2518049/) understanding of autism although this does not (yet!) have much standing in academia. Something I think ties in really well with this reasoning is the concept of Intense Empathy – see @TheoriesofMinds ‘s storifies of conversations on this here: https://storify.com/theoriesofminds/autism-and-intense-empathy
Following that line of reasoning heartbreak is virtually guaranteed. I’ve been working with a young autistic child who recently inadvertently upset a classmate, the classmate swiftly got over it but the autistic child was devastated for hours that he had upset someone. To me this is a typically autistic experience. I would argue that as well as sensory differences we are also emotionally hypersensitive and that shutdown is often the result of emotional overload.
How to help?
So the big question raised by all of this is how on earth can you support an autistic person going through a people obsession? OCD is generally treated by SSRIs (anti-depressants) or CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy). I imagine psychologists would look at the extent of the detrimental effect the obsession is having on the life of the individual and on that basis decide whether intervention is necessary (or rather whether the funding can be justified). For the majority of us however people obsessions do not reach the point of attempted suicide or arrest, many of us are aware of the consequences of obsessive actions and so we protect ourselves from these extreme outcomes. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a problem, the mental health implications of such obsession can be serious and long term, particularly where it often builds on other negative experiences. So what to do?
I think the key things people could do to help here centre around acceptance and safety. Society’s attitude to obsession is (understandably) one of fear. However if your autistic loved one is going to be obsessed by people, they’re going to be obsessed by people, no amount of telling them it’s wrong or silly is going to change that. When I am fixated, no matter aware I am that it is not healthy, I cannot prevent myself from thinking those thoughts, I’ve stopped even trying. So I think it comes down to keeping people safe and this isn’t necessarily limited to children and adolescents. We often crave clarity so some clear rules about what is acceptable and what is not can be really useful.
For the autistic person I’d definitely recommend connecting with other autistics who are going through/have been through similar experiences. I think the idiom ‘it takes one to know one’ has some value here and I think it’s incredibly difficult for a neurotypical to really understand these things. As with so many autistic things NTs often say “oh I get that” and in this instance I can imagine them saying “oh I had a terrible crush on that person” but so often it seems to me they don’t really understand the extent of feeling, the analogy I keep coming back to is what they feel as a wave we feel as a tsunami. Some things defy description but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respectfully listen if the autistic person want to (needs to!) talk about their special person.
NT: “oh yeah, I get that all the time…” No, you don’t.
What is real anyway?
At risk of veering into other psychological conditions here I think it’s easy for obsession to drift away from reality. I’ve certainly been convinced that people have been utterly perfect in every way only to discover, to my cost, that they were far
from perfect except in my imagination. We know that autistics have difficulties in predicting the behaviour and motivations of others, so obsessions with people can lead to some dangerous places. We’ve talked a bit already about stalking behaviour but I think there’s also a link here with the reported association between autism and abusive relationships (I couldn’t find any research supporting this link but do let me know if you know of some). It’s clear how being so desperate for someone’s attention that you will do anything to please them, you will change to become whatever it seems that person wants, can lead to those subjects of obsession
abusing this. For me being obsessed with people did sometimes lead to a relationship and several decidedly unhealthy ones. Caught in the midst of obsession though it’s very difficult to see people for who they are and the reality very rarely matched my idealised fantasy of the person. Several people report cutting off friends and other interests as a result of a person obsession – here is an example https://aspiewriter.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/love-or-obsession-when-a-person-becomes-an-aspies-special-interest/
I am slowly learning that I need to look to the opinions of others regularly to check
whether what’s going on in my head calibrates with reality. After I finally ran away from my last ex, several friends who I had not been allowed contact with while in the relationship, revealed that she had scared them but they couldn’t tell me (and I would not have listened) as I was so very into her (admitting that now that I’ve seen the reality of what my life became makes me feel nauseated).
Love or obsession?
The other sort of people obsession is the unrequited love scenario. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the distinctions between obsession and love, I’m not sure I understand the difference. I do know that while in the grip of obsession it feels like what is described as love, in a very extreme – can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t think – way. It feels very permanent, and the ability to imagine not feeling that way about the person is simply unfathomable. Experience has taught me however that in time (and sometimes this takes several years) I will move on from obsessions. This
causes all sorts of doubt around relationships though, if I cannot trust my feelings to be as permanent as they feel how can I ever build a future with someone?
What is very real is the in the moment experience. The consequences can be devastating even when they don’t involve breaking the law or being taken advantage of. Unrequited love is incredibly painful. To have your happiness and sense of self-worth depend on someone else is a horrid place to be. The person can become like a drug and despite the ecstasy of interacting with that person in the moment this can lead to withdrawal and severe depression afterwards.
So I’ve written and rewritten and edited this post but ultimately I don’t have any great pearls of wisdom to resolve these issues. The best I can hope for is that by reading this it will encourage you to have more empathy for autistics coping with people obsessions. Be kind to us, don’t blame us for having feelings we can’t help, feeling this way can really suck.