Autistic Obsessions & Interests: Here’s What You Do About Them

There’s a reason I turned out to be a half-decent cook.

I’m not stellar, but I can poach eggs better than Alton Brown (I love the guy, but he cheats with custard cups, and I don’t), make Gordon Ramsay’s Beef Wellington off the top of my head (hint: get ready to cook a gallon of water out of mushrooms), and improvise off enough basic ingredients to get through a dinner on a whim.

It’s not an “autistic” strength, but it was definitely an autistic fixation that got me into this mess.

Growing up in Iceland, the TV options were about as scarce as trees there. You’d have to be exceptionally committed to laziness (as I was) to make “lazy afternoon TV watching” work.

But when Iron Chef popped up, I was captivated. I remembered it coming up as an answer on Millionaire (another obsession), so I watched my first episode: the abalone battle, a Morimoto loss. It engaged my autistic creative circuitry, so off I went to try to make something similar in kind. But we didn’t have abalone. We didn’t even have albacore. 

My parents were great, but they weren’t culinary enthusiasts or much for virtuoso cooking excursions. With five kids, we went for whatever meals would feed the most of us for the least amount of money and complaints. And that wasn’t going to be “Seared Abalone with Basil Reduction and Foie Gras.”

That nascent interest became a bit of an obsession, only more broad: instead of zeroing in on the win/loss records of the Iron Chefs (which, OK, I got into that) and the histories of the rivalries and ingredients (yeah, that too), I got more practical and actually tried “IRON CHEF’ING.”

It began disastrously. 

I once attempted to season a pan by searing black pepper. By itself. On high heat. While my parents said that I invented a passable homemade pepper spray, the culinary output was found wanting.

Over the weeks and the years, I built a shameful résumé of failed experiments (black pepper on ice cream), undercooked duds (turning Chicken Kiev into Chicken Sashimi), near-misses (soggy walnut “crusted” shrimp), and culinary war crimes (stir-frying sliced short ribs, for which I should have been tried by The Hague). 

Though I should have been doomed to spending my adulthood slaving over nothing more than a hot microwave; instead, I turned out to be a serviceable wannabe chef through my autistically-sparked and continued obsession.

There’s a version of this where none of that happened, so here’s what I’d love to pass on.

Some autistic obsessions can lead to key skills and lifelong passions — here’s what you do with them:

Allow for failure. My parents, relatives, and family never did the safe thing and shut me completely out of the kitchen. Despite my many misses, they afforded me chances for some “hits.” And since it meant they didn’t have to do all the cooking, that was an added bonus. I’m glad they let me fail.

Nurture the practical aspects. Since I was nearly a working professional earning my own income at age 14 during this Iron Chef obsession, I was on the hook for funding my own fixations. But it would have been cool to have had this encouraged as well. While things like a Allez Cuisine! – An Iron Chef Retrospective book would have been nice, I’d have loved some practical items: chef’s knives, fancy ingredients, tools, a gift card to a butcher shop, things that would have helped fuel the “doing” aspect.

Create lasting experiences. It took “surviving until age 16” before I finally got to go to a “legit fancy restaurant.” I’d have loved more amazing experiences to refine and shape my obsessions and encourage creativity. So, for God’s sake, if you have a train-loving kid: by all means, take your kid to the damn train museum! Find a connection at the Union Pacific for a ride-along with an engineer. If they’re into sharks, hit up that aquarium, have them take part in a feeding, tuck them in a diving cage for an up-close experience — create the experience. 

Autistic obsessions, interests, and fixations aren’t a distraction from life — they’re a integral part of our life! I enjoyed sharing this slice of my life, and I hope it helps inspire you to do more for the similar interests of autistic people. To discover more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic – or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks.

 

The BIGGEST Problem with the “High Functioning” Autism Label

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Here lies Hunter, a “high functioning” autistic person.

This wasn’t just a photo op. This was me. During a workday. Vacant. Listless. Crushed.  Anything but “high functioning.”

I once used this label, but you can clearly see the problem here. While may seem like functioning labels help, they can’t capture the key challenges in The Life Autistic.

When most people hear “high functioning,” they think “well adjusted, independent, socially awkward, quirky, but overall highly focused, put together, maintains professional decorum, despite some weirdness.” 

And then the opposite, where people assume “lower functioning” in more dependent autistic people, the ones who “haven’t overcome their depression” and can’t hold steady job performance, remain prone to languorous spells, and can’t always be “on top of their stuff.”

Those people can be one and the same.

It’s embarrassing to admit that, despite my efforts, achievements, and relative professional success — I can’t always be 100%. Some days it’s embarrassingly close to 0%.

And I’m a family man — wife, three daughters, two dogs — I support a household!

You would expect that kind of person, husband, father, worker, data professional to have it mostly together and stay above the fray all of the time.

I don’t.

And we don’t.

The biggest problem with the “high functioning” autism label is that it assumes we can function highly all or most of the time. 

I don’t.

And we don’t.

I tried everything that day, and just nothing worked to kick me out of a mental, emotional, functional stupor. My only success was not canceling the meetings I had for the day, in a teeth-gritting effort to summon a smile and conduct some business over web chat. But for most the day, I sunk and stayed sunk in the danker parts of an autistic cave.

There’s no “tips” or “tricks” today.

Just truth.

Even among the “best” of us, even in doing our best, we are always one brush away from our worst—function be damned.

I do hope this helped offer some perspective on how we autistic people function day-to-day. Even when it’s “high” for some of us, it’s not always high. To discover more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic – or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks.

Changing Routines: The Autistic Survival Guide to Interruptions & Disruptions

As an autistic child, I had a hard time with interruptions to my daily routine. As an autistic adult, I still do.

Last Friday, Mrs. H2 cracked open my office door. In her hands, she held our infant, struggling with a midday fuss. Beyond that din, I heard my other two daughters in a tussle downstairs.

“You’re going to hate me for saying this,” she warned. “Can you just not work out today?”

The situational, emotional, and programmatic ingredients in me commingled to a quickening, caustic burn — searing tendrils ran up my shoulders, tensing me in paralyzed impossibility. 

No matter how we want to act, we cannot undo how we feel.

I kicked my rationalizing into high gear (situational needs, emotional pleas, upcoming parties, compressed timeframes) to try to beat back the blaze against my routine pillars (I always work out at this time, I’ve already eaten to work out, my new weights just arrived) — but it was hard.

It is hard to just “pivot” and go with the flow, even when you have to. Even when you need to. And I’m not talking to you and your autistic children here — I’m an extremely rational, hard-working, hyperintrospective, mostly unselfish, grown adult. And it’s still hard. And if this is the thing that seems small and trite to you, then welcome to The Life Autistic, folks!

If you need to make a routine zag happen when you’re 99.9% ready to zig, here’s the best I’ve got:

Brace for impact. I do have to give Mrs. H2 credit: she knows I’m going to react poorly to change. I wish it were easier for me, but at least I know it’s coming, and I can start downshifting those gears and grinding them midstream.

Work through the reaction. I’m reminded of a great New Testament parable that states this well. Nine times out of ten, I’m going to react with a “No.” But when the dust settles, and I can work through that reaction, it’s easier for me to get onto action. Please just be ready for that reactive, gut-instinct no and give us room to relent.

Give us room to navigate. If you want to know how my story played out:

  1. I reacted poorly.
  2. I felt bad.
  3. It was bad for a bit.
  4. I settled down and didn’t work out during my hour.
  5. I helped watch the kids and lull the baby to sleep.
  6. Mrs. H2 was freed up to get cakes made for a party.
  7. I worked out later in the day.
  8. The party turned out great.
  9. The end.

I just assumed it wasn’t “ok” to work out, rather than reframe it as “Is there something I can help with to where I can still adjust my routine without abandoning it entirely?” When I have the room and leeway and agency to adjust, I can manage. 

Did you know: I’m autistic, and I am still learning more about this every day. It’s not easy living it, but it’s a lot to learn from. To discover more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic – or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks!