Autism and Repetition
One of the clear signs of my autism as a child was my tendency to re-read the same book or re-watch the same show, or similarly, to want to read long series of books. My mom would ask me frequently, “do you really want to watch/read that AGAIN?” During the summer when I was in search of every Perry Mason book ever written (I didn’t need to read them in order, though some autists do need that), and I was dragging her to every library in the state, my mom asked, “are you sure you don’t want to try something else?”
Yes, I was sure I didn’t want to try something else. I wanted to read all the Perry Mason books. After that, I pivoted to reading every single book written by the Perry Mason author, Erle Stanley Gardner. Yet no one ever thought that I was autistic. In the late 80s, I suppose that wasn’t a diagnosis for someone who was as high-functioning as I was.
I did move on from Perry Mason, to a list of “classic novels” that a teacher handed out in 8th grade. That was what helped make sure I was so well-educated and put me ahead of the class in AP English, so that I took the test my junior year before I took the class. I’d already read the books (in order as much as I could) for all those kinds of tests. And while I don’t have perfect recall, I had something pretty close to it, plus an ability to analyze literature in a way that most kids my age didn’t have.
I was something of an autistic savant, though in a very strange area of expertise, German Literature. I started a PhD program at Princeton at age 19 in that field, much to the surprise of the professors there, who hadn’t realized I was that young. My writing and my analytical abilities were far advanced for my age, though there were many social areas in which I was very immature. My ability to sit around and talk to other people was nearly nil, for instance. My ability to sit for interviews, also very close to nil. I hated them so much that I’d often self-sabotage by blurting out something egregious or I’d start laughing.
Thirty years later, I’ve figure out a lot of the social stuff. I still don’t like it and it still feels like it’s a burden to carry, to keep having to remember what things I’m allowed to say and what things are considered inappropriate, what truths are expected and what lies required. What clothes I can wear to work and what ones I can’t (much helped by virtual work, thank you!)
But despite all this “development” toward what might look like a neurotypical norm, in my free reading and free watching habits, I’m still very much the autistic child who wants to read the same thing over and over and over again. I tend to watch shows that have the most number of episodes, not because I particularly like the show itself, but simply because I like the knowledge that I can keep watching it for a long time and that it will remain mostly the same, with only small changes.
This means that some of my favorite shows are: Survivor, Grey’s Anatomy, and ER. I dread it when I’ve reached nearly the end of the show, because then I will have to find something else that stimulates my brain in that soothing, happy way again and there’s no guarantee I will find it anytime soon. Recommendations from friends are hit or miss because I’m not looking for a good show. I’m looking for one that is unoffending and mostly mindless in the same way episode after episode. If you’re autistic, you’re nodding your head in understanding. If you’re not, you’re utterly confused. Why would you want this?
As a reader, I still tend toward long series, which are often mysteries, though there are romances now that targe this same part of my brain by having the same characters and the same world as the writer tells happy endings for everyone. Yes, Mom, I want to read the same thing again and again. No, I’m not done with Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason yet. I write my own mysteries now. I enjoy trying to figure out how to give readers the same hit that I love, enough of the same with enough different.