It’s Not Just Dinosaurs and Trains

Written on April 2, 2013 at 5:08 pm , by


By Emily Willingham, science editor at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.


You might have learned somewhere that autistic people tend to have obsessions. Back when my oldest son, TH, was diagnosed with autism, the clinician types called them “unifocal obsessions.” They’re some target of attention that was unusual for the child’s age or developmental stage or just flat-out weird. Often, writers or TV shows will give examples of these unwavering interests, with trains or dinosaurs usually topping a list. What’s funny to me is that if you obsess about these things as a child, it’s considered strange. But if you do it as an adult, you’re what we call a “professor.”

What you might not see on such lists is the enormous range of interests that autistic people can have. I took a quick Facebook poll of autistic people and autism parents for this post, just to get some specific examples. Among the many replies: cooking, catalogues, Blues Clues, gymnastics, Devo (yes, the band), Mario, US presidents, insects, LEGO, Minecraft, logos, music, antique surgical instruments, maps, old drum machines, astronomy, elevators, receipts, medical equipment, and sea turtles.

In our case, our son’s major, lifelong obsession is acorns. He’s basically a human version of Scrat from the Ice Age movies, and, like Scrat, thinks that heaven should be paved and furnished with acorns. Since he was a toddler, he’s loved this little fruit of the oak tree and is still a kid who yells out “acorns!!!” with the kind of excitement children usually reserve for spotting the ice cream truck.

Another part of the “autism obsession” cliché is that autistic people, once you get them rolling on their subject of interest, will not stop talking about it if they’re speaking autistics. We’ve never

had that with our son and acorns. In fact, our son might know the genus for oak tree, but I’m not sure because he doesn’t talk endlessly about acorns if someone brings them up. (OK, I just asked him, and he does know the genus; it’s Quercus. He actually knows quite a few common names for oaks, especially the burr oak, which makes acorns the size of ping-pong balls, swallowed in their enormous, fuzzy hats that look like tiny thatched roofs. Even if you’re not an acorn fan, burr oak acorns tend to astonish.)

But my son’s obsession turns more to the visual and the acquisitive. He’ll look at an acorn for long periods of time. One single acorn. He names them—the most recent was called “Edward.” We don’t know anyone named Edward, except for that acorn. He sleeps with them. He asks for them for Christmas. When he can, he collects them by the dozens and creates elaborate, swirling designs on the floor or ground with them, which he then requests that we document photographically.

Acorns are everywhere in our lives—under feet, in the washing machine, in the crannies of our minivan (aware of oak disease, I try hard to clean these out) and under mattresses. We have books about acorns and acorn holiday ornaments. Acorns have soothed our son’s social anxiety, making him able to enter a classroom, and they’ve served as a reward to hold out for a job well done. Like Scrat, our son is happiest when he’s around these little tree nuts and that makes us happy, too.

Are acorns his only interest? No. He loves Pokemon, chess, maps, all things about the natural world, mythology, and the periodic table of elements. All of those focused interests share the commonality of underlying order and rules and organization. But an acorn? Well that that tiny seed holds all the instructions for becoming an oak tree. And there, the rules end. The rest is a matter of the right mix of nurturing and leaving the way open to potential. Similarly, our son arrived in this world programmed to grow and develop as a human. But there, the rules end, too, and not a day goes by that he doesn’t show us the benefit of leaving him space to find his potential, and that includes space for the things he enjoys most.

Have (or know) an autistic child with an interesting passion? Post a comment and tell us about it here!


Emily Willingham is science editor at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and managing editor at Double X Science, an online science magazine for women.


48 Responses to “It’s Not Just Dinosaurs and Trains”

  1. My son is obsessed with music and presidents. He also loves calendars. He studies then and likes to remember what day of the week people were born on, for example. He knows all the US presidents in order and what years they served and their birth and death day (if they have died). He’s also really good at remembering people’s birthdays in real life, which actually makes him quite popular as people are impressed with this skill.

  2. Dear Emily,

    What a cool post! Your son might (or might not) be interested to know that the Irish (Gaelic) for oak is dair/doir, and for an oak wood or forest, is doire, from which the Irish city of Derry (Doire) gets its name.

    All best wishes,
    Sarah McKibben

  3. Our PDD-NOS son goes through phases…18 months was letters and the sounds they made; 2 years counting backwards; 2 1/2 reading EVERYTHING; 3 knew every bus route in the city; 4 geography – knew the states by shape (you could size tx down to the size of RI or MO to the size of Alaska and he knew) and their capitals and nicknames; also knew quite a few countries by 4 (on the trip to Ireland he didn’t watch games but the map on the in flight entertainment system) etc.

    He has a different way of looking at things that makes me love and appreciate him more.

  4. Crystals. Bought The Crystal Bible (vol 1, but back then there was only Vol 1) at age 5, started collecting around then too. Slept with amethyst and flurite in a silk bag under his pillow. Now there is also moonstone, and many more.

    He is 15. He now reads runes and tarot, practises reiki (for which his needing-two-knee-replacements mother is consistently grateful), and wants to do his degree in physics and metaphysics.

    He has many more wider, different interests, but this is his love.

    Oh, and his crystal collection? Now takes up teo antique display cabinets…

  5. @ Karen – My 4 year old love Presidents and calenars too. I only have 1 child so for me it is hard to remember what is different.

  6. Crystals. Bought The Crystal Bible (vol 1, but back then there was only Vol 1) at age 5, started collecting around then too. Slept with amethyst and flurite in a silk bag under his pillow. Now there is also moonstone, and many more.

    He is 15. He now reads runes and tarot, practises reiki (for which his needing-two-knee-replacements mother is consistently grateful), and wants to do his degree in physics and metaphysics.

    He has many more wider, different interests, but this is his love.

    Oh, and his crystal collection? Now takes up two antique display cabinets…

  7. This article made me so happy… My son, now 9, has Asperger’s and is obsessed with non-dinosaur objects as well. He was a water bottle for Halloween at age 5 (which I trace back to that infamous plane flight when he was 4 months old throughout which I entertained him simply by shaking the remaining water in a plastic bottle, prompting his hard-won full-body laugh every single time…). It was also buses. Not buses as a whole: their head- and tail-light arrangements; the world of differences across counties and states. And door closures. And fans. Such a joy to *really* know something…

  8. Acorns are pretty awesome. I hope your son finds a way to make a career out of them if he still likes them when he’s an adult. (Science? Art?)

  9. 3 year old is obsessed with gak, DVD cases and breaking grass and sticks in half :)

  10. My little buddy is obsessed with hamsters. It started with Zhu Zhu Hamsters and has since expanded to real hamsters. He is 5. He will squeak like a hamster, collects hamster balls and when we go to the pet store he stands in front of the hamster stuff and stares at it for hours. He has special hamster buddies that go everywhere with him. He even enjoys watching videos of them. He wants a real one, but mean mommy that I am, has vetoed that idea until he gets older.

  11. This is one of my favorite things, people being interested in unusual things. My kids are both on the spectrum, my eldest (almost 8) has been a Condor (particularly California Condors) fanatic since she discovered them in a documentary when she was about 5, she is also a veritable dinosaur encyclopedia (how beige of her ;) ) She is enamored by birds in general (she will tell you she only really likes dinosaurs though since birds *are* dinosaurs) but Condors are her primary love and everyone who knows her knows it. My 5 year olds particular interest is spiders (particularly tarantulas and more broadly, insects) he realized a dream of holding one earlier this month, happiness doesn’t even cover it. One day maybe his parents will get far enough past their fear and he’ll be able to have a pet one, perhaps in a decade or so.

  12. My daughter Zoë loves nature. She loves to study beetles (mainly ladybugs and roly poly bugs) and flowers and grass and any little living thing she can watch. She will talk to anyone who will listen about the things she has learned about animals and plants. She collects rocks, geodes, crystals, shells, sticks, seeds, tiny artifacts, anything from nature that she can smuggle into the house. She LOVES fairies and looks for them everywhere. She cries whenever I have to cut the grass, so I let a flower field grow in our backyard and I’m not going to mow it until they drop seed. My neighbors haven’t complained yet, and I enjoy the wildflowers too. She is my little activist. She will talk to everyone about the need to protect our planet. She’s also obsessed with cats (we have 3 and she watches an endless amount of cat videos) and her favorite thing to say is “peanut butter!” – not to eat, just to say it! LOL

  13. For my kids (identical twin boys) it is dinos and other prehistoric animals. And also now it is Star Trek, time travel, the future. But one of their first big ones was Toyotas. I don’t know any other three year olds who had to point out every Toyota they saw. And we live in Los Angeles… there are a lot of Toyotas here :)

  14. My son has a number of interests, like Lego mini-figs, the various Lego video games, and a few specific cartoons, but his first really deep interest was Godzilla. Now, though, that interest has expanded to all Japanese kaiju (giant monster) movies. If you have any questions about Godzilla, Rodan, Gamera, etc. he can answer them in as much detail as you want. :)

  15. My son is 22 and in college. He has gone through various “obsessions” in his life. When he was small, he was fascinated by parking signs and traffic signals, and would draw them endlessly. Then he was totally interested in different print fonts, and practiced replicating them. We still have a page from one of his many 18″ x 24″ pads on which he wrote “Czechoslovakia” in about 10 different fonts when he was four. At some point he started watching Jeopardy, and can tell you all about when the set changed and how, and when the theme song arrangements were altered. He went through a phase where he learned pretty much every Beatles song ever recorded, and could hum all the parts of the arrangements. Then he progressed on to The Band, and other music. My husband, who is a musician, has grown to depend on him for figuring out what chords are being played on various recordings. For many years now one of his main things has been politics and social justice. He has amassed a vast amount of knowledge on these subjects. And he’s become quite a writer. So he’s grown into a pretty interesting person. And I am always waiting to hear what he will become fascinated with next.

  16. I love this article. we have had some odd obsessions with my son Eli. He is13 and at the moment he loves Bicycle playing cards…he has gone through beads, photos, tree branches…especially birch, rearranging his room around…

  17. My son’s interest changed over the years. Pokeman, power rangers, anima, computer games, drawing, singing, learning French. He moves from one interest into another. He has many interests, but he always has one that dominates his time.

  18. I have twin girls with PDD-NOS. one is interested in the natural world–including the prehistoric world–animals and Minecraft. Oh, and the Kratt Brothers and “Creature Power Suits,” which she will invoke sometimes when she feels she’s in a scrape (“Oh, no, I need a Cheetah Power Suit!”).

    The other is obsessed with “girly” things like accessories and makeup–her costumes are a wonder to behold–anime, and drawing the same character over and over again in different situations/outfits. The detail involved in her drawings is amazing. And lately she’s been bringing home a lot of rocks.

    And my obsession with Googling made me look up burr oak acorns mid-article–very cool!

  19. I love this — I just learned so much about acorns :) My 8-year-old twin boys are identical, but have very un-identical interests: Civil War and Elmo; Early Hominids and the number 5 (including other numbers that contain it: 15, 25, 35).

    I think finding a subject you love, whether acorns or australopithecus afarensis (which I hear about daily) is the first step in opening your world.

  20. I love this article, I do not have a child with Autism, but do work in a school with several classrooms specifically designed for students who cannot yet handle a general education classroom. Lots of friends with kids on varying places of the ASD spectrum. I find it a little sad that our society has created an atmosphere that made it necessary for you to explain and defend such a harmless part of Autism. Especially since most children at some point in their lives do have some sort of obsession. Too bad they haven’t found the beauty in their obsession and become experts. Looking up Oak Disease right now… Never heard of it. GO ACORNS!

  21. [...] Возможно, вы слышали или где-то читали, что аутисты часто имеют навязчивые интересы. В те времена, когда моему старшему сыны, Тиэйчу, поставили диагноз «аутизм», врачи называли их «унифокальными навязчивостями». Эти интересы отличаются тем, что ребенок сосредотачивает на них все свое внимание, и очень часто они необычны для данного возраста или стадии развития ребенка, либо же они просто очень странные. Авторы книг или телепередач часто приводят примеры таких непоколебимых интересов. Традиционно в первую очередь говорят о любви к поездам или динозаврам. Забавно, что если вы одержимы такими предметами в детстве, то это считается странным. Когда вы делаете это во взрослом возрасте, то вас называют «профессором». Автор: Эмили Уиллингэм / Emily Willingham Источник: Family Circle [...]

  22. I have been a life-long stamp collector. I have always been fascinated by the printing varieties, watermarks, and other features that distinguish one stamp from another. Plus, I’ve learned a lot about history and geography, and have enjoyed the artwork.

    I was diagnosed as Asperger’s at age 60, and have come to understand the soothing nature of the hours I spent pouring over my stamps. I’m sure it helped my deal with the stress of college and employment.

    I am now selling my accumulation of philatelic material on eBay, and I am enjoying that process every bit as much as I did collecting.

  23. Thanks so much for posting this. I’ve been so curious about the phenomenon of “unifocal obsessions” among kids with autism.

    My son is almost 6 years old, PDD-NOS, and minimally verbal. His passion is… (wait for it…) corporate logos. I’m not proud of it, but it is what it is. He never watched commercial television until he was about 4 (and even then, very little), but he would instantly jump for joy at a young age to see the corporate sponsors at the end of a PBS show like “Sesame Street”. (To this day, he absolutely adores ads for Beaches family resorts, Chuck E. Cheese, Earth’s Best, and McDonalds.) He loves magazines, because he can flip through them and find lots of logos to identify. It is hard to stop him from running into a drug store (logo paradise – particularly the detergent aisle is a favorite) and we have a lot of behavior problems because of this.

    To my mind, I don’t know of any other children who have this obsession… but I hear rumors that he’s not the only one who loves logos.

    My question is this: What makes something particularly fascinating to someone with autism? Is it a visual stimulous? I feel like it has something to do with visual patterning and recognizability. I’d really love to see some research in this area.

  24. With me, it was Disney all through my life, with a co-focus coming in turns as I grew up: KISS, Captain Harlock (a 1970s Japanese anime), Adam and the Ants, the Tudor Dynasty, Ghostbusters, Harry Potter, pink rabbits, Harvest Moon, apples… I’ve just phased out of Bae Yong Joon and wonder what’s coming next.

  25. My boy loves trains but above all Thomas the Tank Engine. The videos must be pre-2008, and we must avoid episodes where trains are VERY sad or scared. His great grandfather loved trains and even worked for the railroad. We live by a couple of train depots, so sometimes we watch the trains come in.

  26. Tree branches, leaves, Lego and taking one arm off every figurine and doll and then playing with them (!?) At first, as the arms came off his Toy Story dolls (Woody, Buzz and Jessie) we figured he was imitating the movie, but as all the Lego men, Spiderman, Monster’s Inc. Mike and Sully are the latest to lose their limbs, I figure it is a more generic interest. The interesting part is the arms are in integral part of his imaginative games. Although there is language in these games, it is not ours but I would love to know the narrative. Oh well. I guess I will worry if this interest in amputation switches to his brother…

  27. My son is 11, nonverbal and his obsession is with coat hangers.

  28. I have just been diagnosed with aspergers at 29. I have a daughter who is seventeen months and we are seeing developmental delays in speech and in eye hand coordination. We just will not know where this will take her in life right now. The first step was my diagnoses on March 13 of this year. I can only speak for myself. Recently I had a huge obsession with Mount Vesuvius.. which leads to Pompeii and Hurculenium.. which leads to ancient Rome.. which leads to History. As a child I was obsessed with ancient Egypt, mythology from the greeks, romans, norse, and egyptions, spirits, ghosts. As I have gotten older I find I have a few passions that could lead me to a college education. My love for health and wellness leads me to psychology (Emotional health and wellness)with emphasis on positive psychology. I may even study environmental science or cultural anthropology. It depends.

  29. My 8 yr old daughter autistic daughter is obsessed with pipe cleaners (so glad I can get about 40 for a $1!!) and she bends the into the shape of a “L” and holds them like a handle. She’s done this for about 2 years…it’s funny, if we are walking in the park she searches for “L” shaped sticks and collects them too…random, but it makes her happy !

  30. This list includes fixations from both my boys with autism: Alen wrenches, babies, knights and castles, airplanes, helicopters, trains, giraffes, horses, drums, Dr. Seuss books, Elmo, towers, and churches.

  31. My son has a passion for numbers, he loves to throw out mathematical problems to me & his dad just to see if we know the right answer. In the event we wrongly guess (just to amuse him) he finds it extremely amusing. His other passions are Minecraft, Legos & Star Wars

  32. DVD and CD cases. He loves to look at them, spread them out, and rearrange them. This interest has expanded his social interactions as he likes to show everyone his ‘cases’ and asks what they have. It makes me think of when we actually had records and the album covers were art and collected!

  33. My 10 year old son with autism is obsessed with shoes. Specifically Dansko shoes, which are very very expensive. He loves to go to The Walking Company store, which is the only place near us that sells the things. He has three pairs that he cuddles, kisses, shows to people, etc.

  34. My almost 9yo daughter was obsessed with kangaroos FOREVER. Then added penguins & sea horses into the mix. Lately the obsession is My Little Ponies. She’s not content to just watch the shows on HUB, she researches their lineage.

  35. My son was interested in hubcaps, especially cars with missing hubcaps, when he was about 2 or 3. He memorized every car-hubcap configuration in our neighborhood. He would know which hubcaps were missing on every car. Later he became interested in license plate numbers, then very large numbers, then Roman Numerals, then the tally mark system that eventually became Roman Numerals. He has also been interested in the solar system and the Oort Cloud.

  36. OMG! This is the FIRST I have ever heard of and ASD kid having an obsession with acorns other than my boy! He loves acorns, too, but now he is also obsessed with bats. The acorn obsession started when he was barely a toddler. At his daycare there was a large oak tree on the playground in a far corner. Garrison would avoid being social with the other kids and spend all his time over in the corner under this tree, picking up acorns, shoving them in his diaper, pockets, shoes, anywhere he could fit them! He would sleep with them and carry them around. This obsession lasted with intensity until age 5, when he discovered bats. He still loves and marvels at acorns, but no longer to the point that he walking around with his pockets and underwear full, lol! I do however continue to find acorns in the dryer, car floor, and under his bed.

  37. I do have a dinosaur obsessed possible autistic more accurately paleontology. He does talk about it endlessly. He doesn’t get that from autism; he gets that from a mom who talks too much herself.

    He’s also really into centrifugal motion. He loves what keeps his beyblades and now his spinny tops spinning and he wants to combine centrifugal motion with his (non autistic) brother’s love of the concept of infinity.

    He’s getting really into manners, too. I’ll miss all that “butt burping” a lot.

  38. our 9 year old son has been fascinated by plastic clothes hangers since he was a toddler. He has hundreds. I’ve learned to see minute differences between them.

    other strong interests: vcr’s and vhs; google maps; singing The 12 Days of Xmas; names of counties.

  39. My son is obsessed with Rubiks Cube puzzles. He has over a dozen different ones, and can do a standard one in under a minute. He even did a “bump” cube (one that has squares different sizes) blindfolded the other day. His interests change, fir ibstance he has just made a calculator on minecraft using redstone today. He also taught himself to ride a unicycle age 9, and has a regular one and a 5ft one.His other interests include magnets, lasers, trampoline, freerunning, and our dog!

  40. My son has many interests. I wouldn’t call them obsessions, just special interested, and the intensity of attention and time he spends on. Pixar movies, or any CG movie, really, but he seems to prefer Pixar to others. Helicopters are another one, though he’s only interested in the spinning rotor and the sound they make. Aliens and UFO, which are fairly new and seems to share with his dad. Skeletons have always been a favorite and lately learning about holidays and why we celebrate them the way hey do has piqued his interest. He’s only seven and I expect he will eventually settle on one particular special interest. Right now, I just do what I can to feed his curiosity, and he has an insatiable sense of curiosity and such an eager desire to learn about the world. I hope he never loses it and learns and grows and gains more interests and continues to expand his knowledge.

  41. My undiagnosed daughter of 7 has loved frogs since she was 4 years old. Her room was frogs (now replaced by her Monster Highcharacters).She still adores frogs and looks for ways to save them. She also loves to dance and choreograph her own stuff. My PDD – NOS son of 2 and 1/2 loves horses, balls (he’s got an arm on him and watches everyone complete sports moves so he can replicate them), archery/hunting, and maybe geography in the future. They both NEED movement.

    I found your article interesting and your son’s interest on acorns really neat.

  42. A very nice read … my youngest son, Dakota, has been diagnosed with autism since he was four. Of course, his mother and I knew long before this. I completely agree with what you’ve written about except your reference to autistic people. Think about this question. Weren’t they people first? Yes, Dakota will always be a person, my son, before mentioning that he has autism. And, one of his big things is trees … the whole tree. Thanks again for sharing. Sharing is a great part of improving the lives of these wonderful people with autism. God Bless!!!

  43. My son now 7 used to be obsessed with pylons, he loved sring at them across the fields. He watched them on youtube.these days its car games on his ipad,he is extremely good at them to.

  44. My daughter, Maddy, has a fascination with supercars, especially Lamborghinis. She knows all the facts and figures about many models.

    With God’s help, I was able to make a dream come true for her with the help of some incredibly gracious and kind people.

    It was all captured by the media and AutoWeek magazine and the video can be seen here:

  45. Thank you for this article. For my son, it’s flags – United States flags, pirate flags, racing flags, etc.

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