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April 5, 2011 / Julia

The Obsessive Joy Of Autism

I am autistic. I can talk; I talked to myself for a long time before I would talk to anyone else. My sensory system is a painful mess, my grasp on language isn’t always the best, and it takes me quite some time to process social situations. I cannot yet live on my own or manage college or relationships successfully. I can explain, bemoan, and wish away a lot of things about me and my autism: my troubles finding the right words to say what I really mean, my social processing lag and limits, my rubbery facial expressions, my anxiety, my sensory system’s dysfunctions, my brain’s tendency to get stuck in physical self-destruct mode and land me in the ER. I can complain about the suckiness of being socialized and educated as an autistic and as an outsider, about lack of supports and understanding and always needing to educate.

One of the things about autism is that a lot of things can make you terribly unhappy while barely affecting others. A lot of things are harder.

But some things? Some things are so much easier. Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions. (Mine are: sudoku and Glee. I am not ashamed.)

Now, maybe you do not understand. Because “obsession” and even “perseveration” have specific dictionary and colloquial meanings which everyone uses and understands and which do not even come CLOSE to describing my relationship with whatever I’m obsessing on now. It’s not just that I am sitting in my room and my heart is racing and all I can think about is Glee and all I want to do is read about it and talk about it and never go to sleep because that would take time away from this and that has been my life for the past few days. It’s not just that I am doing sudokus in my head or that I find ways to talk about either numbers or Glee in any conversation, including ones about needing to give a student a sensory break so he’ll stop screaming and throwing things.

(It’s not just the association and pressure of shame, because when ever an autistic person gets autistically excited about something, there will be people there to shame and bully them, and some of us will internalize that shame and lock away our obsessions and believe the bullies and let them take away this unique, untranslatable joy and turn it into something dirty and battered.)

It’s not any of that. Those are all things neurotypicals can understand and process. This goes beyond that. It’s not anything recognized on the continuum of “normal”.

It’s that the experience is so rich. It’s textured, vibrant, and layered. It exudes joy. It is a hug machine for my brain. It makes my heart pump faster and my mouth twitch back into a smile every few minutes. I feel like I’m sparkling. Every inch of me is totally engaged in and powered up by the obsession. Things are clear.

It is beautiful. It is perfect.

I flap a lot when I think about Glee or when I finish a sudoku puzzle. I make funny little sounds. I spin. I rock. I laugh. I am happy. Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happy, so enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.

This is the part about autism I can never explain. This is the part I never want to lose. Without this part autism is not worth having.

Neurotypical people pity autistics. I pity neurotypicals. I pity anyone who cannot feel the way that flapping your hands just so amplifies everything you feel and thrusts it up into the air. I pity anyone who doesn’t understand how beautiful the multiples of seven are, anyone who doesn’t get chills when a shadow falls just so across a solitaire game spread out on the table. I pity anyone who is so restrained by what is considered acceptable happiness that they will never understand when I say that sometimes being autistic in this world means walking through a crowd of silently miserable people and holding your happiness like a secret or a baby, letting it warm you as your mind runs on the familiar tracks of an obsession and lights your way through the day.

It takes a million different forms. A boy pacing by himself, flapping and humming and laughing. An “interest” or obsessions that is “age appropriate”—or maybe one that is not. A shake of the fingers in front of the eyes, a monologue, an echolaliated phrase. All of these things autistic people are supposed to be ashamed of and stop doing? They are how we communicate our joy.

If I could change three things about how the world sees autism, they would be these. That the world would see that we feel joy—sometimes a joy so intense and private and all-encompassing that it eclipses anything the world might feel. That the world would stop punishing us for our joy, stop grabbing flapping hands and eliminating interests that are not “age-appropriate”, stop shaming and gas-lighting us into believing that we are never, and can never be, happy. And that our joy would be valued in and of itself, seen as a necessary and beautiful part of our disability, pursued, and shared.

This is about the obsessive joy of autism. So I guess, if I’m trying to explain what an obsession (and, by necessity, obsessive joy) means to me as an autistic person, I can bring it back to the tired old image of a little professor cornering an unsuspecting passerby and lecturing them for half an hour. All too often this encounter is viewed through the terrified eyes of the unwillingly captive audience. I’d like to invite you to see through the eyes of the lecturer, who is not so much determined to force their knowledge into you as they are opened to a flood of joy which they cannot contain.

And why would you want to contain something like that?



Leave a Comment
  1. Joe Schmo / Apr 5 2011 11:57 pm

    Fantastic. So very true that there is nothing wrong with your path to joy and it is quite beautiful!

    Though I might say that if you don’t feel the need to receive pity from “neurotypicals”, it might also follow that neurotypicals might not need your pity either. Everyone has their own unique paths to joy and all of them are valuable, even the ones that make no sense to you.

    Fuck normal. As a “neurotypical” I can say that most of us are not nearly as normal as we appear. We just have a differently shaped layer over it.

  2. Sadie / Apr 6 2011 12:03 am

    This post has my fingers twitching, ever so delightfully twitchily.

  3. Tony / Apr 6 2011 12:53 am

    Thanks for this. I’m a neurotypical and I never thought of trying flapping my hands before. I just did, and it felt a lot like the way you described it! I’m not claiming my experience was the same, or as intense, as yours, but thanks for opening me to giving it a go; and from now on when I see someone autistic doing it, I’m smile at their happiness rather than being slightly perturbed by my inability to understand what they are experiencing.

  4. querything / May 8 2011 5:31 pm

    I’m commenting mostly to say thankyou for this blog as a whole — it must be exhausting putting most of these posts together. If you’d like to know, and if I’m not perverting your intent in writing this, I’d like to say that it’s an articulate and valuable document of how fucking cruel society is to folks with disabilities.

    I’m sad that a couple of self-identified neurotypical people seem to think the right response to this particular post is “oh yeah I enjoy these things you’ve identified as the redeeming features of being autistic too”. Fellow commentators, please celebrate this moving piece of writing not with “look, I empathise with this aspect of autism”, that’s reductive and presumptuous. Folks, did you ignore this:

    ‘It’s not any of that. Those are all things neurotypicals can understand and process. This goes beyond that. It’s not anything recognized on the continuum of “normal”.’

    Please, can’t ya celebrate someone else’s joy without trying to participate?

  5. Emily / May 31 2011 8:00 pm

    Exactly, I agree 1,000%!!!

    I love many aspects of my Autism — my extreme intelligence, my sensitivity, my lack of interest in the “social games” people play, my extreme and complex interests in the arts, music, drama, math, science, history and law … I just don’t like it when people bully, put down, or threaten me about it. I honestly don’t a flying **** what people do or like as long as no one is hurt in anyway and the person is happy.

  6. Jen / Jun 3 2011 4:55 am

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! When I was little I used to get so so HAPPY that I would curl up in a ball and just tremble with the overwhelming joy of it all.

    I love European royal history, medicine, anatomy and physiology, gymnastics, and ballet. All day long I see gymnasts doing a perfect aerial walkover and ballet dancer doing continuous fouette turns in my head. So many wonderful beautiful angles and lines.

    Music too. Finding a combination of notes, that perfect rhythm that is just sublime. Listening to it over and over and over so that from then on it’s added to my little mental iPod that is always on shuffle and repeat. Mentally playing back that song note-perfect and reveling in the repetitive goodness. When people harp on about their favorite bands and ask me what mine is, I can’t say for sure, I don’t really like a band, I like songs.

    My life is basically work, school, indulge my passions and interests through reading and writing and thinking. I know it’s not technically “healthy” to spend so much time on them, but they make me happy. I mean truly SATISFIED, not superficially happy.

    I still want friends and a boyfriend/girlfriend eventually. But for now, I am happily absorbed in studying, working, and reading/learning/writing/thinking/imagining. Thanks for writing this. I’m so glad I’m not alone :).

  7. Mummy of a beautiful boy / Jun 16 2011 12:01 pm

    As a mother of a delicious 3 year old boy with autism, I thank you for sharing.

    To know that my son feels extreme joy from his alphabet puzzle that he insists on walking me through each day, and from the tune he presets on his keyboard (Venus) to see if I will dance with him makes me feel that although he cant have a conversation with me about his loves, he is still feeling love.

    Me an my husband call his obsession with letters his superpower, and this is the way I will continue to describe it to his future teachers.

  8. Ariane Zurcher / Mar 2 2012 1:38 pm

    This is beautiful. My wish for my beautiful daughter is that she will one day be able to articulate her views, her opinions and thoughts as powerfully as you have here in this post.


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