Passions, Obsessions, and Self-Stimulatory Behaviors

I believe there is a lot of confusion about these terms used in home/unschooling, in regard to the right-brained learner, and in the autism community.  I thought I might be able to shed some light on the differences based on my experiences with my various children.

I think Alex, age 14, can serve to illustrate the difference between all three to start us off.  Alex was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was 2 years old.  He has two older brothers diagnosed as well.  One of his “special interests” around that age was ceiling fans.  However, as a 2-3 year old with limited cognition, his interest in them was purely for self-stimulatory satisfaction.  He enjoyed watching the blades spin around and around and gets a kick out of the sensation he gets from watching it from certain angles.  Around 3-4 years old, his interest shifted into obsession, even almost addiction.  Suddenly, it’s almost like the joy of watching it no longer existed, but was replaced with a need to turn them on and off, with a frantic-like quality.  I found that he didn’t want to do anything else, in any way, shape or form.  The most important difference, though, that made it an obsession/addiction was the idea that he was taking no pleasure in it, and he couldn’t seem to stop his need to do it all day long.  (We “broke” all the fans in the house, and that helped him “snap out of it” after a few months, so that we could “fix them”, and he could go back to enjoying the experience of watching them again.)  I don’t know when it went from self-stimulatory behavior to passion.  I think it was around 8 years old when he realized that there were more components to ceiling fans than just the thrill of the viewing of it.  He started to assemble fans, collect fans, create his own fans, understand how all the parts create the whole, and to appreciate vintage fans.  Alex has a full life with several focuses or passions as well as meaningful relationships and interactions, with future plans and hopes and dreams.  One of his passions is ceiling fans, which may lead to his future career path.  He is a part of on-line forums for fan lovers and they have interesting conversations among each other.  He has even found an IRL friend through his passion who shares it in a meaningful way (he restores ceiling fans at s Habitat for Humanity Restore).

So, my definition in practice of these three words are this:

•  Self-stimulatory behaviors create enjoyable sensations, particularly sensory input sensations, that a person does for pleasure.

Some examples of this are when Adam, age 16, diagnosed with autism (moderately-severely affected) flips coins into a bucket over and over again.  He loves how it feels on his fingers, how it sounds as it rhythmically clinks, and how it visually looks as it floats into an arc into the pile created.  Or when Alex enjoys something for whatever reason, he makes a particular noise while tensing up his body and rubbing his fingers together as a way to express sensorially his satisfaction.  When he was younger, around 1 year old, Alex would crawl into a tight space under my night stand and play with a cord.  His enjoyment of this practice was a positive sensory experience.

I think the categorization of “self-stimulatory behavior” is overused in the autism community.  I believe it is most true from those who view autism as a negative attribute (that’s a whole other post, because I feel there are two sides to that thought) and one to be expunged.  For instance, I believe many would consider Alex’s ceiling fan passion a self-stimulatory behavior.  He can do actions that express that side, but it is overall a passion.  A good example of the misconception is playing the piano.   There is certainly a sensorial appreciation to playing with the listening of the music to the touching of the keys to the patterning of the action, but for most people, it is either a pleasant skill to enjoy or a passion.  Another personal example is Eli, age 18, diagnosed with high functioning autism, starting at the age of 1.5 years old, spent hours with trains.  He would lie down as he meticulously linked the metal cast die trains together, close one eye, and pull the train toward him and past as he watched his creation from various angles.  The experts would call that “looking at the parts”, but in actuality, he was enjoying his three-dimensionality aspect of being right-brained.  There is one type of conclusion in the autism community about “enjoying parts”, but there may be another explanation as so many individuals with autism are right-brained learners, with three-dimensionality gifts, that may be exploring what that means by bringing parts up close and personal for a season while younger.

•  Obsession is when an interest has taken over a life devoid of other enjoyable features and there is no longer joy associated with the action.

Some examples of this is when Alex, 1-2 years old at the time, would line up his Duplo blocks into a line over and over.  He would often get agitated as he did it, thus, not taking any enjoyment from it.  However, he would get upset if it didn’t line up as he wanted, or if it got messed up.  He was not receiving sensorial benefit from it, nor was he enjoying the experience.  Sometimes, Adam accidentally lets one of his self-stimulatory behaviors turn into an obsession related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.  For instance, if he has no other cognitive stimulation going on in his life, instead of using his coin flipping as a sensory outlet and calming enjoyment action, he can begin to create patterns within his mind as he does the flipping that begins to cycle.  He noticeably becomes agitated while flipping, his actions become spasmodic, and the sounds he makes become intense.  He is no longer enjoying the experience and often has a difficult time completing whatever cycle he has created that has taken over the process.

What it is not is often confused with the beginning stages of a passion, particularly with people with autism who may seem “out of balance” at this stage.  For instance, when Eli was 1.5-4 years old, he spent hours creating train tracks and playing his trains.  Then, from 4-12, he spent an equal amount of time with Legos.  During this timeframe, Eli had no interest in friends, though he had consistent interactions in formal settings I brought him to, and had many “odd” ways of interacting and difficulty communicating effectively.  However, Eli was gaining much pleasure from his interest, he was competent in diverse ways, he continued to learn and grow from its practice, and he was in balance for the stage of autism he was at during that time.

Alex’s interest in John Denver songs and the Beatles may be misinterpreted by experts/people of a different perspective as either a self-stimulatory behavior or an obsession, but I see it has a developing passion.  Alex will listen to a particular song over and over again, taking great pleasure out of hearing it, so it could be seen as a pleasant sensorial experience as his reasons for doing this.  Or, because of this repetition, it may be seen as an obsession.  However, though I believe he is having a pleasant sensory experience, he is always learning and growing in more information about these two artists.  It has also expanded into other music.  He has also developed other skills through the interest such as creating his own montages.  I see it as a passion.

Because of the nature of autism, particularly in the early stages of development when a young person with autism is still trying to figure out our “culture” of cognitive understanding, the things that interest them may be more sensory in nature because of how attuned their sensory system is to their surroundings.  Further, as they get older, and if they have not been helped in knowing how to interact with the world in which they live, the interest may become obsessive because they don’t know where else to take it. However, I find that as we expand their understanding of their interest to the world, it becomes a healthy passion like anyone else enjoys.  I wrote a post about that idea here.

•  Passion is when an interest engulfs your being and it brings great pleasure and satisfaction, with consistent growth and/or learning associated with it, insomuch as a person wants to spend many hours a day engaged in its pursuit.

A right-brained learner often is engaged in a passion, particularly one of the creative outlets (music/dance, art/drawing, theater’/showmanship, math/numbers, video games/computers, mazes/puzzles, fashion/sewing, cooking/gardening, building/electronics).  They will spend hours and hours, days and days, years and years in its pursuit in their ability to reach excellence (it is said that 10,000 hours of dedicated pursuit is needed to excel in something).  I wonder if because our schooling system is focused on a generalist education, that we think anything that someone spends hours pursuing must be bad, thus, placing the negative word “obsession” on it.

Some examples of passion pursuits in our house is the hours upon hours of Lego building Eli engaged in, or the hours upon hours of drawing Eric, age 22, engaged in.  Interestingly, Eli’s Lego building led him to computer programming.  At 14 years old, he started spending hours and hours dedicated to learning how to program.  He carried around his programming book as his “bible”.  We give value to this as a passion because it is recognizable as a “career path”, but his surrounding himself with his Legos was no different than his programming.  It was the predecessor to his finding his career path passion.  I always tell people to look beyond the exterior act.  What do you see happening as they pursue this interest?  I saw this one time when Eli had learned about pyramids:



This Lego pyramid had as much intricacy inside as it is outside, as depicted in his drawing beforehand.

Everyone has their own balance in life.  In order to develop a passion to excellence, many hours need to be dedicated to it.  This is what a strengths-based, gift-centered learning environment can look like.  Some are introverts and need less interaction time than those who are extraverts.  Some cerebral types of children need less physical activity than those who are active and high energy.  I remember learning an interesting lesson from Eli when he was 9 years old.  I was actively looking for a good match for him in a playmate in order to develop some of his social skills.  I noticed another homeschooled girl who seemed to be “odd” like Eli, so thought it might be interesting to see how they might get along.  In order to facilitate the initiation of diverse activities, I created an idea board of things in the house they could play with, and each could take turns making a choice.  This is what they chose as their first three activities as I observed one day:

First, they chose a puzzle with many pieces, I think it was 100 or something, and they both bent over the activity, deep in concentration as they constructed this puzzle.  Then, they chose a board game that was fun, like Cootie Bug or something that took luck and playful interaction.  Then, last they created their own interest by cutting a long piece of yarn from a skein, attaching it to the back ends of themselves, and finding a circular path in our home and following that path, letting the yarn drag behind, and trying to leap toward the end of their yarn as they circled around, to see if they could grab it . . . a strange, yet delightful to them, escapade.  Suddenly, it occurred to me.  Now I see why Eli had a difficult time finding friends:  he went from a highly cerebral activity, to a traditional (normal) activity, to an odd activity.  Uusually, he would lose someone in the transition, as so many children are either one, the other, or the last, but not all three in one.  His diversity of interest created a division in peer match-ups!

Thus, what it is not is when a child is engaged in a pursuit of potential passion, and they get “out of balance” during a stage that they don’t have the skill set to know how to manage their interest.  Video game playing is a perfect example of this.  My oldest son loved playing video games starting at 5 years old.  Around 8-9 years old, he went through a stage that appeared to be “obsessive/addictive.”  And, in actuality, it had shifted into that realm (just like self-stimulatory can warp to passion, so can passion deteriorate into obsession) because he didn’t have the skills of self-management.  So, suddenly video games were not fun anymore, and he was acting out in frustration, yet refused to stop playing because he had to make it to the next level.  His actions became spastic and his attitude became ugly.  So, just like with my 3-4 year old who needed to take a break from ceiling fans in order to break from the obsessive nature he had found himself, for my 9-year-old, I could pull him aside and give him good information about what he was experiencing, how to manage it effectively, and what had happened to something that was of high interest to him.  Over a year’s time of discussion and collaboration and knowledge sharing, his self-management and “in balance” needs were consistently integrated from himself in order to place his video game interest back into passion mode.  (He used his interest in video games as inspiration for his art and history projects throughout his childhood and into his life’s pursuit.)

In conclusion, spending longs hours in the pursuit of something does not make it an obsession.  We are so focused on being a little good at everything that we forget what it looks like to specialize in something and how much time it takes to excel at it.  Further, being in “balance” looks different for various children based on temperament and learning traits, but also looks different at the various stages of development, including factoring in extenuating circumstances, like being diagnosed with autism.  I have developed my observation skills in order to see beyond what is front of me, but more importantly, I have questioned the generalist attitude of our learning environments for our young children.   We need more passion in our lives; we can give that to our children in our perspective and our learning lives!

6 responses to “Passions, Obsessions, and Self-Stimulatory Behaviors

  1. Pingback: Apple Stars » Blog Archive » Passions, Obsessions, and Self … | TypicalGames.Com

  2. Fascinating! Thanks so much for the insights. My son, who is not autistic but I think very right-brained, has these deep abiding interests in things that I jokingly call “obsessions” but really are passions. I find it so important to give him the time, space, and resources to follow them as far as he wants to because I have seen so much joy and satisfaction come from it.

  3. I love your blog; I have a right-brained learner and I am one as well. I’m the writer/artist. He is into math and video games. This is a really cool entry and a good differentiation.

    Autism never came to mind for me with regard to my son, because I’ve observed enough autistic children to know the difference.

    It is important to understand the unique differences between children (and adults), so we can serve them better as parents, homeschooling teachers, and as a society in general.

  4. Oh and, yes, I would say the math and video games are my son’s passions. 🙂

    Keep up the fabulous work!

  5. Excellent post! I have seen these differences too, having a child with Asperger’s and OCD. Obsessions don’t bring joy, you just feel anxious is you DON’T do it. A passion is another thing altogether. I often blur the lines between these in my thinking.

  6. Fabulous read and spot on.

    I see this so much, not just in my own children but in others around us. There is no such thing as an average child and trying to make all children learn little bits of everything is suitable to none.

    I have always said my son is fascinatingly extraordinary and so many uneducated supposed educators have tried to label him autistic or aspergers or ADHD because they didn’t get him. The label never fitted and the educated and experienced professionals I was forced to go and see would laugh when I would tell them of the school’s concerns.

    My son has several passions and gets very engrossed in the latest interest but never at the expense of everything else.

    His failure to disconnect from his current passion in school from as young as 2.5yo – because he didn’t want to give yet another peripheral glance at something else new or uninteresting or that he already knew – was seen as OCD and oppositional defiance and therefore must be autism. Ditto to his unwillingness to disengage his eyes from his current task to answer questions.

    Passion is such a strong extreme RBer trait and it always surprises me that so few educators know anything about it.

    I wish you come to the UK and educate our Education Minister!