No, we're not 'obsessed' with you.
This one feels weird to write. This is one of those autistic experiences where I can't tell if it's just me. I'm hoping that by writing this I might hear from others who experience the same, and that maybe we can all feel a little less alone.
It's a suggestion that has plagued me since childhood. "OMG. You're obsessed with it/them/her/him! Wtf?!" It has always completely baffled me, and it's only in the last year or so that I'm beginning to get an inkling of what it is about my approach to things that makes me seem "obsessive" to neurotypicals. I still don't fully understand it, but I hope that by outlining what I've realised so far, I can help set the record straight on why I and people like me act in the ways we do and how to approach the idea from an autistic perspective.
One thing I do want to make clear is that I don't believe that autistic people need to STOP doing any of these things. What is needed is some more mutual understanding of the differences in our neurological 'languages', and a willingness to understand that the way we conceptualise and approach things is very different. This means that behaviours or outcomes that might be the result of obsessive thought by a neurotypical person don't necessarily involve the same level of thought for an autistic person. As such, here are a few things to bear in mind before applying neurotypical models to autistic behaviour.
Autistics often retain more information and/or different information than non-autistics.
This is a big one. One of the main things that elicits accusations of 'obsessive' behaviour is my ability to retain and recall obscure facts about people, places and things that might be forgotten by others. For example, a friend once asked me to retrieve something from her car by handing me her keys and saying "it's the green one, the number plate is XXXX XXX". I duly went out, retrieved the item from the car and returned the keys. A few months later, I ran into her in the supermarket. "Fancy seeing you here!", she said. I said "Oh, I saw you were here when I pulled in, your car was outside." "My car?" she said. "Yes," I replied, and quoted "'it's the green one, the number plate is XXXX XXX'". She went pale, laughed awkwardly, and said "yeah, because that's not weird... are you obsessed with me?" I was confused, and she left.
It wasn't until, after beating myself up mentally trying to work out what I'd done wrong, I approached a friend in tears asking for her help. "Oh MJ," she said. "Normal people don't remember that kind of thing unless they deliberately memorise it or see it all the time. She probably thought you've been watching her car!" I was mortified. The next day I took her to one side and explained. "I realise what I said sounded weird. I'm not obsessed with you, I just have a photographic memory. You told me the number plate when you asked me to get something from your car, and it stuck. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable." At the time, I didn't have the word 'autistic' to explain how my memory soaks up information like this, and I'm not sure she fully understood. She forgave me and we moved on, but things were always a little awkward after that until I finally told her about my autism diagnosis last year.
This is one of the few situations in which the general stereotype of autistics as being like Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man would actually have come in useful. Not all autistics experience exceptional memory skills, but it's not unusual for us to have highly developed areas of narrow skill. For me, that skill is almost perfect recall for linguistic or verbal information (it doesn't work with purely numerical data, which is why I'm terrible with phone numbers, dates and times). This shows up in a number of areas of my life. It's why I'm so good at languages, and why I can often recall huge amounts of vocabulary, including phrases or words I've only learned once. It also explains why I'm less good at understanding grammar, even though I can recall conjugations from memory; I can recall the words, but not the rules.
Working in communications, it's also why I have an uncanny knack for names and faces if I'm introduced to someone face-to-face. At a recent event I organised, around a hundred attendees submitted a short introduction video before they arrived. I reviewed the videos as part of my role, and when the event came my colleagues and the attendees were amazed when I greeted each of them by name before being introduced. I had to explain that this is how my memory works, and that I only need to see the videos once for my brain to connect the names with faces and commit them to memory. Once I explained, it was seen positively and really helped me build a rapport with the visitors. In this sense, it's a real advantage, but it can be startling to people who don't know about my skill.
This is also why when my friend told me her number plate once, I remembered it for months. I can still recall it now, and can repeat the phrase "it's the green one, the number plate is XXXX XXX" in the same tone in which it was said to me. It's not due to any kind of ritualised or obsessive attempt to memorise the information. It's simply how my brain works, picking up little soundbites and remembering them. It's no different to any other string of information such as song lyrics, names, or French vocabulary.
Autistics mean what they say, we take and use language literally
This one was a really tricky one to work out. It was a Eureka moment when I finally realised why it seemed odd to people. There are certain social 'promises' or ideal types of behaviours that people are expected to espouse but don't tend to actually act on; for example, 'check in regularly on a friend who is ill or upset'. Where most people will say this, they might send a message once, perhaps follow up weeks later, and consider the obligation fulfilled. Autistics work a little differently. Amongst my autistic friends, this is followed almost to the letter. If I'm upset, I can expect that my autistic friends will check on me regularly until I voice that I'm feeling better. And when I say regularly, I mean 'regularly', as in 'my friends will build checking on me into their routine and do it at consistent intervals without fail', to the extent that I can actually predict the day of the week and the time of day that they will check in on me. It has never occurred to me to consider this unusual. I do the same for them; if they say they're struggling, I'll check in twice a week, approximately three days apart, with a 'how are you?' or a cute cat picture. My friends know this. They expect it. They know that this will continue until I receive further instructions, such as "I'm feeling better" or "I need space, please check back in in X time". In this case, it's not the product of obsessive thought, but rather of keeping a promise to the letter.
The same goes for requests; I will tend to follow them very literally, often to an extent which surprises my non-autistic friends. For example, my friend over at Scorched Earth Tarot recently said to me "If i don't get back to you by the end of the day, message me to prompt me". So, when midnight rolled around, I duly messaged her 'hey, what's the craic?'. Thankfully she knows how my brain works, and found the whole thing quite amusing. However, a lot of people would be quite taken aback by this, and likely find it obsessive or weird to receive a message in the middle of the night, bang on the end of the day. Again, this is not the result of obsessive thought processes, but rather of taking instructions literally.
Many autistics experience social phobia, which causes them to overthink interactions
Ironically, this one does involve obsessive thought, but not over the other person. Many autistics experience heightened anxiety, and are prone to phobias and anxiety disorders at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Many of us are also painfully aware of our social difficulties, which can create a perfect storm of social anxiety. One of the major symptoms of social anxiety is ruminating over interactions, dissecting what was said in minute detail and panicking about every possible thing we might have said wrong. This is ironic because the obsession here is not focused on the other person, but rather on our own social performance.
This can lead to a number of odd behaviours, including being awkward when talking to someone, rehearsing interactions in our heads, and - if we feel something didn't go so well - running over and over the interaction to work out where we messed up. This can lead to us talking about distressing interactions a lot with those close to us, to try and make sense of it in our heads. However, my non-autistic friends often find this bizarre as they don't experience this extreme anxiety, and thinking about social interactions in this way is not part of their cognition. This can also be viewed by neurotypicals as being a sign of "obsession" with the other person in an interaction, but is actually very much an obsessive anxiety about our own social behaviour.
These are just a few of the misconceptions surrounding autism and supposedly "obsessive" behaviour, but they do constitute some of the common misunderstandings between autistics and non-autistics when socialising. If your autistic friend says something unusual, be prepared to consider it in the context of their autism, and perhaps even held them process the information so that they can move their thoughts on. The stigma of being "weird" or "obsessive" due to simple differences in our cognitive processing can create a lot of social barriers for autistics, when all that is required is some mutual understanding.
I hope this week's feature has helped you understand our brains a little better!