Welcome to the A to Z Challenge on autism, day 21. Today for the letter U, I will focus on unusual fascinations and fears in autistic people. This is mostly a personal post.
Many autistic people have one or more special interests that they obsess over. In the previous edition of the psychiatrist’s handbook, the DSM-IV, these interests were said to be abnormal either in intensity or focus. I discussed intensity when I talked about obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Focus refers to an interest in an abnormally narrow aspect of a topic. For example, I used to be interested in public transportation, but only insofar as I could memorize bus and metro routes.
Another DSM-IV criterion of autism was an unusual fixation on (parts of) objects. This could include collecting a specific object, as I discussed before. It can however also refer to fixation on parts of objects rather than the whole. A classic example of this is a child who spins the wheels of a toy car compulsively rather than playing with the toy.
Unusual fears are also common in autistic people, particularly those with emotion regulation problems (such as people with McDD). A person with autism or a similar condition often creates illogical relations and jumps to irrational conclusions. For example, Gunilla Gerland wrote in her book A Real Person that she thought that her sister would come home if the newspaper lay in a certain position on the table, so when someone moved the newspaper, she thought her sister would never come home again. In a Dutch book on autism, I read about a boy who heard a grey wolf had been seen somewhere. He was afraid that the wolf would come into his home, even though it had been seen nowhere near his city.
I draw similar conclusions which lead to fear. For example, in our apartment, my husband and i have a taxus on the balcony. Since I know taxuses to be poisonous, I don’t want to go on the balcony, fearing that somehow this taxus thing will kill me.
Fear-inducing things or situations can also be a person’s special interest or fascination. For example, I used to be fascinated by the Brazilian wandering spider, even though I was also fearful of it.
Of course, magical thinking and related fears are common in typically developing children too, but in autistics, they last much longer. Autistic people may also benefit from a different approach to reassurance. The boy in the Dutch book, for example, was reassured when he’d read an encyclopedia article on wolves, even though the article had quite gruesome details in it.