Saturday, March 19, 2011

OCD vs. Obsessing

It seems to me that many people with Asperger's syndrome or who know somebody with Asperger's syndrome wonder if an Asperger's obsession is different from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). After all, both involve excessive thoughts/actions related to one thing! Is there a difference?


In Tony Attwood's great book The Complete Guide to Asperger's syndrome, Attwood points out a very important difference. Someone who is obsessed with trains or the Harry Potter series, for example, is getting pleasure out of the obsession. He or she is learning more about trains, how they work, and perhaps even how to build one. He or she is losing himself or herself in the world of Harry Potter to escape the real world, which is just too damned confusing! 

Someone with OCD, on the other hand, might be constantly afraid of running someone over in a car or getting a terminal illness if he does not wash his hands for exactly three minutes and forty-two seconds. These obsessions cause fear and distress, not pleasure. 

Now that you understand the difference, let me emphasize emphatically to parents that trying to end your child's obsession with trains or Harry Potter is not an option. This obsession keeps your child going, keeps him happy in a frustrating world. You must ask yourself if the reason you want it to end is because you think the child will be happier or if it is just because you are tired of hearing about it all day. If it's the former, then it's time to rethink your perception of the situation. If it's the latter, the answer is to help your child pursue his or her obsession in a constructive way. Get your train-obsessed child a model train set to play with or even encourage him to build his own model train from scratch. 

Can OCD be concurrent with Asperger's syndrome? You betcha. Attwood points out that it is sometimes an effect of the Asperger's syndrome, rather than something completely separate. I certainly think that was the case with me for many many years. Because of repeated social failures, I lived with the chronic, obsessive fear that I would mess up socially. I obsessed over things like, "Is that a genuine smile, or is that person uncomfortable?" Or, "When I told that joke and he laughed, did he think it was funny or am I going to find out the next day how deeply offended he was and that he told everybody how uncomfortable I made him?" "When I tried to engage in that conversation, did I come across as trying too hard, or was I natural?" These weren't just passing worries. I often harped on them for weeks at a time! Really, how can someone with Asperger's syndrome (undiagnosed in my childhood, in my case) NOT develop OCD? 

The fact that I grew up into a healthy, well-adjusted adult is nothing short of amazing. I guess it's because of how I'm hardwired, for whatever reason, to bounce back from setbacks and try again. It was only up until about two years ago that I obsessed about these things on a regular basis. One step that I took to overcome it was realizing that everyone makes social mistakes and not every social mistake I make is unique to Asperger's syndrome. It was then, in fact, that I realized I probably would not be diagnosed with the condition anymore because I compensated for so much. The few social mistakes I make these days are minor ones, ones that anyone can make. 

If you have a child or a friend with Asperger's who makes an obvious social mistake, such as yelling in public, "You farted!" not knowing that this is rude, don't get so worked up. If you get worked up, I can all but guarantee your child or friend will be obsessing on this for a long time. "I screwed up again. I suck at life." and so forth. Sure, someone announcing your farts in public is embarrassing, but really, is it the end of the world? Just gently remind the person not to do it anymore. Sure, it's frustrating, but I guarantee it's more frustrating for the person with Asperger's syndrome not knowing instinctively what behaviors are "appropriate" and what aren't.

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