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Passion, obsession, and the autistic child

As any parent of an autistic child knows, the tendency of our kids to perseverate is a fact of life. Or, at least, it looks like perseveration to us, but it quite possibly could be good old fashioned perseverance.

The distinction between “perseverate” and “persevere” is one that I often wondered about. What I’ve come up with, in a nutshell, is this:

  • perseverate is bad, keeping at something for no real purpose
  • persevere is good, keeping at something in pursuit of a meaningful goal.

Another way to look at it is that someone who perseverates is acting on an obsession, while someone who perseveres is pursuing a passion. In his recent article Passion Versus ObsessionJohn Hagel provides some insight into this distinction as he reconsiders his earlier question, “When does passion become obsession?“:

To say passion becomes obsession is to make a distinction of degree. It implies that obsession is a more passionate form of passion—too much of a good thing. However, I’m now convinced that passion and obsession do not vary in degree, but in kind. In fact, in many ways they are opposite. [original emphasis]

For parents – of autistic or not autistic children – it is a real challenge to tell the difference between an obsession and a passion of our kids. Consider the following, a passage that I wrote comparing two different authors’ views on the effect and value of video games:

To Prensky, video games are a passion that can lead to positive learning and skills…. For the Bruners, video games are an obsession that lead to destroyed lives.

If you read the entire article, you will see that the amazing thing is that both Prensky and the Bruners had basically the same understanding of how games work and draw players in but come to wildly different – opposing – conclusions about what it means. For one, games provided an outlet for passion; for the other, games are a destructive obsession.

So how exactly do you figure out if your kid’s behavior is an obsession – so you can help understand and overcome it – or a passion that you can nurture and encourage?  For many parents, especially of “normal” kids, this can seem pretty straightforward: if your kid is interested in something weird, it is an obsession; if it is something more common, then it is a passion.

But just a few seconds thought, serious thought, and you realize that this is not a very good way to make this distinction. Or, as teenage autistic Luke Jackson asks (in a quote that I’ve used before) with more than a hint of sarcasm:

When is an obsession not an obsession?

When it is about football.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Emily Willingham | 13 Sep 10 at 1512 | Permalink

    I think it comes down to the fundamental reason *anything* crosses the line from “OK” to pathology: Does it interfere significantly with quality of life or ordinary functions of life (or what qualifies as ordinary for that specific individual)? A secondary consideration is, How does the person feel about it? Many addicts, while unable to break their addiction, also hate their addiction. But my son’s obsession with all things acorns makes him blissfully happy.