Perseveration and difficulties with change

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – I’ve thought of all kinds of topics to write about, and planned them in my mind, but somehow the actual act of getting myself to sit down and writing them seemed hard. Not that I find it hard to actually write blog posts – I like to write them – but what is hard is the actual switch from whatever I’m doing to something different.

As this is a common aspect of Aspergers, I decided I might as well write a post about it – as a way of both explaining my absence and illustrating why people on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with organisation, and why the ‘perseveration’ thing happens.

I’d never actually heard the term ‘perseveration’ until I started reading about autism and Asperger Syndrome, and then I immediately knew what was being described. I can illustrate in by talking about the past couple of weeks.

Once I started doing the ‘100 things’ strategy described in my last post, I became focused on organisation. I started planning my meals for the week too, which got me thinking about health, and starting to plan exercise. I started keeping a journal to keep track of all I do each day, dividing my life into various categories, such as ‘house’, ‘food’, ‘exercise’, ‘finance’, ‘relaxation’, etc. This became the focus of my life for a few days – I had to be constantly aware of it for it to work, and in order to be constantly aware of it, I had to focus my mind on it to the exclusion of all else.

Then I started going for walks in the woodlands and in the moors. This seemed a logical way of combining the categories of enjoyment, relaxation and exercise, because I really enjoy such walks. Once I started, I would walk for hours and hours, so walking became the focus of my days. I started taking photographs of the trees, because I love trees – their shapes fascinate me. My days became totally focused on woodland walks and capturing them in photographs, and then collecting these photos onto my laptop, cropping them and resizing them. I completely forgot about all other aspects of organisation, and the journal I was keeping. I just remembered it yesterday, and realised I hadn’t written in it for six days.

When I stand back from this, I feel frustrated, because although I love walking in the woodlands and the moors, I don’t want my whole life to consist of that. I also love reading novels, and had actually planned to do some reading. I always took a book along on my walks, thinking I would sit down at some point and read it. But somehow my mind just wouldn’t switch from walking mode to reading mode. I was walking and I would keep on walking. I would sit down sometimes on the walks, to have something to eat, but I wouldn’t read, because reading seemed like a completely different world. The switch from focusing on the walk and the trees to focusing on a book seemed like a vast chasm.

This isn’t to say that I can’t read when on a walk – but to do that, my whole focus would have to be on reading. I’d be oblivious to the beauty of the woodlands and countryside around me. When I was a kid, my focus was often entirely on reading. Wherever I went, I would bring a book and I would read it – read it while walking along, reading when stopping anywhere, etc. – because reading was what occupied my mind.

I’m trying to think of an analogy so people can understand the difficulty switching from one thing to another. It’s kind of like moving to another country on the spur of the moment. For most people who have lived in the same country all their lives, this would be an enormous and difficult transition – because your mind is accustomed to your own country. You have learnt to take many things for granted which would all change if you moved to another country – it would be a huge transition, and would be very difficult to just switch from your life here to moving there. Not just in practical terms, but in mental adjustment.

Interestingly, I moved to Canada for five years when I was 21, and many people said how brave I was, but to me there was nothing unusual about it, because all changes are huge for me. Moving to Canada was no different. Obviously, in practical terms, the actual act of switching from walking to reading is nothing like the act of moving to Canada. There were all kinds of complicated things involved in moving to Canada, like applying to be a student at the university, getting a student visa, organising accommodation, booking a flight, etc. – whereas switching from walking to reading just involves sitting down and taking a book out of my bag, opening it and reading it. But the difficulty is not in the practicalities of the act itself – it’s in the switching of mindset.

This is why people on the autism spectrum often develop special interests. Once we are focused on one thing, it is so much easier to keep focusing on it than to switch to something else. Something else may arise from it, as a side thing, like woodland walks arising from my focus on organisation, but it arises because of a link. It’s much easier to switch naturally to something that is somehow linked than to switch to something which is unrelated. For instance, when on my walks, I started thinking about how I’d like to read some reference books about trees and flowers and insects and birds. If I were to do that, then I would probably start focusing on reading, and then may well start reading novels again. But if I were to just pick up a novel and read it today, I may enjoy it but it would feel disjointed from the rest of my life, unless there was a central theme of my life to which the book related.

This is why life can feel fragmented for people on the autistic spectrum. We often lack a sense of overall cohesion – ‘central coherence’ – so we find one thing to focus on, and somehow everything else needs to relate to this.

Understanding this can help with devising strategies. For children on the autistic spectrum, who have various activities organised by adults, it would be helpful to find some way of linking the activities, so there is not the uncomfortable jolt of switching from one to the other. For instance, as a kid, I would never want to go to bed when it was bedtime. This was because my mind was focused on whatever I was doing, and couldn’t make the switch to going to bed, which was, to use my analogy, like moving to another country. What would happen is that my mother would get angry, which didn’t help, because it became a fight, which made me even less inclined to relax and quieten for bed.

It occurs to me in retrospect that if instead there had been some kind of link, and routine, it would have been easier. It’s hard to know exactly what would have worked, but it occurs to me that maybe if lights had been dimmed, and soft relaxing music been played, or maybe a scented candle burnt (out of reach, for safety) at a certain time, then this might have somehow prepared my mind to quieten down, and I would have started to associate these sensory cues with going to bed.

I probably could do something like that for myself as an adult too (as I still have a lot of difficulty going to bed at a regular time) – although then I’d be responsible for the cues myself, so I’d have to somehow find a way of making myself do them at the right time. I’m still trying to work this out in my mind, so I have no definite strategies, but I will experiment with trying to find something that works. Maybe having an alarm clock go off at a certain time in the evening when I want to start preparing my mind for bed time – and putting the alarm clock by my aromatherapy oil burner, as a cue for lighting it, and that could act as a cue for dimming lights. I will try this and if it works, I’ll write another post about it.

The role and function of special interests

I’m reading Temple Grandin’s book The Way I See It. Although I’ve read a lot of books written by people on the autistic spectrum, I’d never read any of her books before. This is because I thought I wouldn’t be able to relate to her, as I have no interest in cattle, and I didn’t think I thought in pictures, as I’ve always been very focused on words. But then I watched the movie with Claire Danes, and as I watched, my mouth kept dropping in amazement whenever the movie showed what was happening in Temple’s head – the visual images she was making, the angles she was seeing, the literal images she saw when people spoke figuratively. This is what goes on in my head too. I’m good with words, because I was taught to read at an early age, and spent my entire childhood reading, and went on to study English literature at university. Language became (and still is) an ‘obsession’, or ‘special interest’, of mine. But I realised through watching that movie that I do very much think in pictures. Thinking in words really only comes about when I write – I suppose because my primary channel of language as a child was the written word.

I’ve been thinking about special interests, as Temple Grandin talks a bit about them in her book. Interestingly, on my Asperger diagnosis, this is the one area where there is not much information. I couldn’t think of any ‘obsessions’ when the psychologist asked me.

Partly this is because of the connotations of the word – people often use ‘obsessive’ to mean someone neurotic or someone who stalks someone. And it suggests to me a kind of helplessness and lack of enjoyment – someone who is compelled to do something against their will. Whereas the things I’ve been interested in have always been thoroughly enjoyable to me, and make me feel alive and energised. They haven’t felt like ‘obsessions’ from my understanding of the word.

And partly, my inability to think of ‘obsessions’ was because I simply didn’t see anything unusual in my interests. I thought everyone had such interests. And to be fair, they do. In recent weeks, I’ve observed plenty of people obsessed with football and the World Cup. I suppose the difference is that non-autistic people are able to multitask – the connections in their brain enable them to switch from one thing to another with ease, and to see the big picture, in which their interests are just one part. Whereas people on the autistic spectrum don’t have the natural ability to switch easily from one thing to another when they are fully absorbed in something. For myself, having an all-encompassing interest compensates for confusion and difficulty making sense of the world. In a confusing, unpredictable world, it creates a centre, a stability. The more I know about the interest, the more solid it is.

In some ways, I think the actual interest is less important than the fact of having one. While I’ve had a couple of special interests that have lasted throughout my life (such as in language, literature, and musicals), I’ve also had plenty of temporary special interests which have been quite diverse.  I find all kinds of things can be interesting when I really focus on them. I remember having a temporary fascination with Vikings as a child, after going to the Jorvic museum in York. It didn’t last because I didn’t have any books on Vikings or anything to fuel the interest with after leaving the museum. When I had books on things, they became more lasting interests. I had a lot of books on nature – flowers, trees, wildlife – as a child, and I would read these books over and over, memorising the different types of trees and birds, and drawing pictures of them. I no longer have any books on them, so this is no longer an interest of mine, but when I go for woodland walks, then my interest is renewed, and if I had some nature books now, this could easily become a special interest again.

But in terms of a career, and a focus for my life, it seems to me to make more sense to have just one special interest, to act as a kind of centre. For me, I think this will always be language and literature, in all its forms, and at all its levels. Life becomes confusing and unfocused with many interests. Temple Grandin’s book talks about expanding a special interest by making other things relate to it. She is talking specifically about using special interests as learning opportunities – finding maths questions about trains, for instance, if a child’s special interest is trains – but I’m expanding this concept in my mind and thinking about how finding ways to apply everyday things to one’s special interest could help with focus and motivation. Temple Grandin’s book also says that if a child is deprived of their special interest, then life loses its meaning, and I can relate to that. When I’m not able to focus on one thing, but have all kinds of things demanding my attention, I feel that life has no meaning. So a challenge could be to find ways to relate all of life to one’s special interest.

I’m quite lucky that my special interest allows me to do that quite easily. I like writing – so when I’ve had dull tiring jobs, I’ve thought of each day in terms of how I will blog about it (I’ve been blogging on various sites for about ten years). However, sometimes I’ve lost that focus, and then life has seemed dreary and pointless.

I suppose if one thinks creatively enough, one could find ways to apply all kinds of mundane situations to even quite specialist interests. Thinking of other examples, I like to draw portraits, and in social situations I can focus by mentally scanning people’s face shapes and imagining drawing them. I am also very interested in phonetics, and sometimes I can focus in a noisy environment by mentally phonetically transcribing what people are saying.

I suppose too that learning to think creatively like that, by focusing on how one’s special interests could apply to a variety of seemingly unrelated topics, is actually really useful for people on the spectrum, because it is a way of practising flexible thought. People on the spectrum often have a difficulty with thinking too rigidly, so this is a concrete way to be motivated to think more flexibly.

It is often said that ‘normal’ or ‘neurotypical’ people process the world starting from the big picture and moving on to the details, whereas people on the autistic spectrum start with the details and build them up to create the big picture. I know this is true of myself, that I need to start with the details. And it occurs to me that this is why special interests work as a way of finding meaning in the world. You start with the details of your special interest, and use it as a starting point, a vantage point, from which to make sense of the larger world. So special interests are a strategy for not getting lost in a confusing world – they are a constant frame of reference for people who aren’t able to understand the world in terms of seeing the big picture as the constant.

As I’m finding the Temple Grandin book interesting, I might write a few entries exploring specific issues that it deals with.