Daniel loves to ask lots of questions. Especially when we’re in the van. That’s when there is an almost constant barrage of questions.
“Why are basking sharks called basking sharks?”
“Do tiger sharks like people?”
“What’s the world’s fastest shark?”
You may have guessed that Daniel’s into sharks. As was I when I was about his age, perhaps a bit older. So when I noticed he was getting more and more and more into sharks, I got him a Sharks of the World, which I will have to admit was about 30% for me. Past obsessions are really never past.
Daniel never quite got as into dinosaurs as I did, but he’s definitely as into sharks as I was. And he’s also into plants. He has several plants filling his window sill, much as I did when I was, again, a little older than him. It seems that, having skipped dinosaurs, Daniel has followed my path of interests when I was a child. Yet, I’ve neither encouraged nor discouraged his obsessions (not that you can do that with someone who is autistic anyway). Are autistic obsessions heritable?
Asking questions about one’s obsessions–or sharing one’s obsessions with others, if one is confident enough in one’s knowledge–is a major way we on the spectrum connect with others. I happen to still remember a great deal about sharks, so when Daniel asks questions, I usually have answers. Also, there’s the internet, which acts as a bonding center. (Speaking of which, I’ll need to find time today to look up facts on basking sharks, since he’s been asking me to do that with him.)
Yet, as you grow older, you become more and more aware of the fact that asking incessant questions and giving lectures on your latest obsession is generally not socially acceptable. Even if you attend a conference on your obsession, it turns out that between sessions, most people want to chit-chat and gossip rather than to continue discussing the cool new ideas you just learned about. So what do you do? You mostly learn to just shut up. And then you’re in a situation where you desperately want to talk to people (about your favored topic), but you know nobody wants to hear about it, so you just end up standing around, awkwardly making people feel uncomfortable.
Think about what it would be like for you if, every time you came home from work, you wanted to talk about work, and your spouse told you that he or she didn’t want to hear about work, that it gets on their nerves every time you “obsessed” about work. After a while, you would just come home and not say much of anything. But since work is 8 hours of your day, it’s a major set of events in your life, and you want to talk to someone else about your experiences and problems and triumphs, so where does that leave you? What kind of relationship would you end up having with your spouse?
I don’t think we would call the spouse who wants to talk about his or her day at work “socially awkward.” Wouldn’t we instead blame the one who doesn’t want to hear about the other’s workday?
To someone on the spectrum, one’s obsessions are one’s “workday.” It’s what we think about, it’s what we care about, it’s what dominates our days and our thinking and likely whatever work we do (officially or unofficially). So while I couldn’t care less about Minecraft, I provide at least a little time to listen and look at what Daniel did. And not just Daniel of course–I also have two other children, and they (along with Daniel) love to draw or (in the case of the youngest, Dylan, and Daniel both) ask incessant questions about Star Wars characters.
We all do these things, but most people seem more willing to indulge in stories about how the workday went, but not in dissertations on sharks, orchids, or self-organizing network processes. If we were so indulged, you may find us to be a little less socially awkward.