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.

 

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