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Perseveration, Obsession: Notes on Finding Kansas

Aaron Likens dreams of being a top-tier professional race driver. Auto racing is the most important thing in his life, often at the cost of social connections. His focus also seems to impair his overall judgment in ways best understood by reading his memoir, Finding Kansas.

Many, maybe most, of the people I've met with autism spectrum diagnoses, have a tendency to perseverate. From simple repeating of sounds or movements for a few minutes to years focused on a topic, the nature of perseveration varies by individual. In some cases the focus drifts into obsession.

I found myself wanting to tell him, "Stop talking about racing. Young women don't care." Aaron's idea of a good day together is watching races. If someone else loves racing as much, then that might make sense, but it is painfully clear that "Emily" does not share Aaron's passion for racing.

The line between interest and obsession is important. A special interest can help you connect to some people; we all tend to appreciate shared interests. An obsession is disabling; instead of creating a bridge to others it creates an obstacle to interactions and understanding.

As I read Finding Kansas, I find myself getting annoyed by the mentions of auto racing. Even his essays on school end up mentioning racing. I am not passionate about any particular sport. Sports are not a "useful" part of life, though I'm fairly certain Aaron wouldn't care about the art, philosophy, or literature I enjoy.

Aaron calls his father to discuss racing. He tries to talk about racing to the young women he likes. He cares so much about racing, about being a driver, that he seems unable to accept that other career paths are more realistic. I cannot relate to this level of focus, but I've observed it often among autistic teens and young adults. Some of their career goals are so unrealistic it causes me some distress.

My college students are sometimes optimistic, but there's a difference: they change their minds and paths from week to week. They don't have their hearts and minds focused on anything, much less a career path set dating back to kindergarten with no flexibility.

While I've known I wanted be a creative writer since second grade or earlier, oddly enough I've never focused on writing as my "profession" or "day job" for some reason. I've always assumed my vocation would be one thing and writing another. Would I be a reporter? A scientist? A programmer? A professor? I've never had a clear plan, only whatever seemed like the best option at the moment. Unlike Aaron or most autistics I meet, my plans keep shifting while I search for a career I can embrace.

Auto racing consumes Aaron. He writes that he has no "Plan B" in life. It's either racing or nothing. And that's what I hear when I speak to groups.

What happens when Plan A is impossible? For Aaron, it seems depression and anxiety are a permanent state of being. Plan A is unlikely, at least at the top-tier of racing, yet Aaron can't accept anything else — at least not yet. Maybe in a few years he will see another path. Maybe there are alternatives that involve driving? I don't know.

If I had Aaron's focus on a career there would be one of two results: 1) major disappointment or 2) I'd persevere until I succeeded. In life, outcome number one is more likely. For individuals unable to adjust their plans, that disappointment can be devastating.

While I can relate to much of what Aaron's writings express, I cannot relate to the hyper-focus on one activity or goal. My problem is something of the opposite: a long list of things I'd love to try.


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