Be warned: this is my longest post yet. This piece serves as a manifesto relevant to not just autistic people or people interested in the condition but also for geeks.
Yet another common stereotype of autistic people is their inclination toward obsession. Now, given the way that things are usually done on this blog, you’re probably expecting me to be pissed off and to be a smartass about this image. Actually, I will not be battling that stereotype here because I’m not at all interested in whether or not the stereotype is true. What I’m interested in about is the question of whether or not true obsession can/should be considered pathological in the first place. I’m particularly concerned about it because in addition to the fact that obsession has a bad rep to begin with, there’s the fact that I have what’s perceived to be a mental illness so it becomes even more pathologized in that light. I’ve heard people give rational-sounding but deceitful reasons for calling obsession and fandom psychologically unhealthy:
“I believe in leisure but we’ve sort of swapped out something that is supposed to be pleasurable and leisurely and replaced it with an intense involvement.” – Dr. Drew Ramsey
“Most fandom is distraction. People who are living their lives completely have very little time to be significant fans of anything, but people avoid struggling to find themselves because that journey is painful.” – Dr. Keith Ablow
“That’s displacement. Our hopes and fears for our own relationships get displaced onto these fictional characters. I understand the desire to escape, but it concerns me when people spend time worrying about fiction rather than improving their reality.” – Dr. Drew Ramsey on fandom
“It’s all just smoke and mirrors.” – Angry Autie on silly people who think that they’re 2 kool 2 obsess
Before I go on, I should also state that by ‘obsession,’ I mean the act of becoming as fully immersed in something as possible. Nothing more. And I consider fandom to be a type of obsession, one that’s directed toward someone else’s creation. Not just something traditionally considered ‘geeky’ like Doctor Who. A love of Shakespeare counts as fandom too.
The idea that obsession has the potential to become psychologically unhealthy is one that really bothers me and I want to dispel the image of obsession being weird or unhealthy. Is there really a line that needs to be drawn? Is it really a bad thing when an interest in something moves beyond idle curiosity? Is an obsession with, say, Star Trek really that fundamentally different from an obsession with, say, the works of Kierkegaard? Beyond a few highly publicized yet isolated incidents like the Harry Potter fan who stabbed someone in the face at Comic-Con back in 2010, fandom and obsession are perfectly healthy. Hell, I’d take it a step further and argue that someone with obsessions is psychologically healthier and also more intelligent than someone with none.
Now I should make clear that extreme obsession is not unique to autistic people. Neurotypicals are just as capable of extreme obsession as we are. You just need to find something that you find interesting enough and you’ll be good to go! There’s an entire culture in Japan, referred to as otaku, in which practitioners engage in extreme fandom, particularly that of manga and anime but it could be anything, Japanese history for instance (though in English, the word ‘otaku’ refers to a fan of manga and anime). Sometimes this obsession reaches extreme levels; for example, men may start falling in love with dakimakura, which are large pillows with hot anime girls printed on them, or even marrying video game avatars that they created. Because of these extreme lengths that otaku go to in order to express their being a fan, otaku has a bad reputation in Japan and the word in Japanese has demeaning connotations, much like ‘geek’ in English. I wouldn’t think that all otaku are on the spectrum – though Japanese culture seems very autism-friendly, particularly Tokyo (beyond all the bright lights and general sensory overload, that is) – and it shows that neurotypicals, like auties, are capable of reaching levels of obsession beyond what is implicitly considered ‘healthy.’
I used to be obsessed with all of the following at one point:
- Thomas the Tank Engine (I know. Trains. How predictable.)
- Dr. Seuss
- Pokémon (but same for almost everyone of my generation)
- Sonic the Hedgehog
- Video games in general, really. Especially the cartoony kinds like Crash Bandicoot
- Flash-animated cartoons (I once had a short-lived dream of becoming a Flash animator)
- Classic rock
- Prog rock
- Extreme metal (still am)
- Dream Theater, particularly keyboardist Jordan Rudess (although they have written songs that make me wonder why I liked them at all)
Now I have reached this state of cool detachment while preserving passionate involvement in the things that I do. I become obsessed but not in an overtly and characteristically geeky way anymore. For instance, I would start to read a certain writer a lot but I wouldn’t memorize all sorts of little factoids about him or her. I now feel an undeserved sense of shame when I go that far. According to society, I’m ‘healthy’ in that regard. But I secretly long for a time when I was capable of becoming obsessed with anything unashamedly. I’ve actually learned a lot from my obsessions and I hold a deep reverence for geeks precisely because they have wild obsessions and aren’t afraid to show it, no matter what they are.
When I was developing my musical voice, I would copy note-for-note songs that I like (or import MIDI files if I’m feeling lazy) into my digital audio workstation and create new timbres for the melodies and harmonies that I copied down. At first, the music just sounded like crappy MIDI but as I started to understand the ins and outs of digital music making, it started to sound more professional and individualistic. I would use songs that I really loved as templates to experiment. I would also (and still do) obsessively listen to and study musical acts that utilize complex rhythms, complex harmonies, and complex rhythmic cycles in order to understand how they work. Such bands include Meshuggah, Textures, Cynic, Atheist, Animals as Leaders, and Dream Theater. Naturally, all of this requires an enormous capacity for obsession, a level of obsession that looks unhealthy to outsiders. I obsess in secret.
One of the autistic adults that I mentor is obsessed with movies, particularly Disney and Pixar films, and he looks up to various Disney and Pixar characters with great passion, particularly Merida from Brave, and he talks about them every time I see him. Though it can get tiring listening to him since he often repeats himself and since I’m nowhere near as intensely involved in this stuff as he is, I still admire how profound his love for those films is. He also wants to be a screenwriter. I’ve read some of his scripts and while the Disney influence is quite unmistakable, they’re actually quite good. Unfortunately, he thinks he has to work on controlling his obsessions, methinks because he’s getting the message that obsessions are ‘weird’ and ‘unhealthy.’ I’m trying to convince him that his obsessions are actually constructive in that they’re conducive to creativity and even self-improvement and that he has no reason to improve his control over them.
But even though his obsessions had informed his creativity like they have for me, they’re still considered pathological, and maybe especially so in light of his autism, and he told me that his interests were often considered childish by other people. Yes, his interests are considered childish by normals, despite the fact that fully-grown and mentally healthy adults are the ones who’ve made these films, so according to that logic, the people who make or are passionate about these films are childish and should be considered mentally unhealthy. But if the makers weren’t passionate about these films, they wouldn’t be very good, now would they? Therefore, MEDIOCRITY IS BEING ENCOURAGED. I don’t know about you but this worries me.
Why are obsessions stigmatized? Here’s one reason: they look weird to outsiders. Someone would probably think I’m mad for listening to the guitar solo on “This Spiteful Snake” or the rhythmic work on “Denying Gravity” and “Millstone” over and over and over again. I think this is because they don’t hear what I hear or listen with the same intentions as I do. I love those songs and I listen in an attempt to ‘get’ what’s happening in those tracks so that I could carry that knowledge over into my own music making.
In other cases where reasons for obsession are not as education-oriented as mine, it is possible that someone is, well, simply really into it. And what’s wrong with that?
“Well Dr. Keith Ablow said on Fox News once that it’s a replacement for the painful journey of self-discovery!”
Take any TV show for example. If- “Oh, TV! Bad example, angry one! TV makes people dumb!” Shut up and let me make my point, hypothetical questioner. And don’t interrupt. “Fine…”
If you’re watching a show and you simply don’t feel engaged, then it’s evidently not a good show and you have no reason to keep tuning in. If, on the other hand, you’re obsessed and feel deeply invested in the well-being of the characters (or the plot if it’s a show that’s basically a long continuous plot like Breaking Bad or The Wire), then it’s clearly a good show, at least to you, and the producers and writers have accomplished what they wanted. It’s a sensation that I find very similar to reading a good novel.
Therefore, shaming someone for obsessing over something they like, whether that thing comes from high or low culture, is irrational and judgmental on so many levels, especially if the obsession provides inspiration. Plus, it’s just insulting to everyone involved – the obsesser, the object, the creators of the object if any – except the person making the insult, effectively making it nothing more than an attempt to aggrandize the insulter by belittling the insulted. (I think there’s a word for that sort of thing… what is it?… wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue… oh yeah!, bullying.)
Here’s an example of me turning an obsession of sorts into something creative:
And there are countless other examples. Nietzsche was a Schopenhauer fanboy. The first Puerto Rican astronaut was a Star Trek fangirl. Paul McCartney was a Little Richard fanboy. In all those cases, the objects of obsession provided inspiration. True creativity begins with true obsession because obsession, given its capacity to unveil the multifaceted nature of anything, helps light the path to creativity. We should encourage obsession, not condemn it.