According to the National Institute of Mental Health: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.
Most people who identify with being on the autism spectrum (Autism Spectrum Disorder/ASD) have challenges with OCD-like behaviors or have been diagnosed with OCD. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can also be triggered through childhood or adult trauma. A double-whammy for many on the spectrum, who have undergone repeated trauma in their lifetime. Impulse control and intrusive thoughts are part of the OCD condition. For some, who are autistic/Aspergerian, the impulse to check the status of a particular event and/or object (cellular phone battery, petrol level in vehicle) and to evaluate statistics (weather patterns, stock market, email notifications) can become a daily preoccupation. Amongst other things, repeatedly checking things and compulsively counting is part of OCD (wall tiles, sidewalk lines, steps). Another trademark is spending over an hour a day on thoughts related to the OCD behaviors (phobia over germs and death).
I have OCD-like traits. I have never been officially diagnosed. Overall, it’s hard to distinguish where my OCD-tendencies begin and where my autism starts, and visa versa. In example, I often wash my hands, several times throughout my day. Being around dirt and dust is hard for me. I do have thoughts of germs in mind sometimes, but not always. My desire to wash my hands is brought on by the sensation of the residue of whatever element I last contacted, be that dirt or donut jelly. Sticky hands or lightly dusted hands are a major distraction. Just as are my fingernails that are not short enough and my clothes made out of material that are not natural fibers. I rewash my hands throughout the day because of the sensation of my hands, not because of intrusive thoughts. If I did not think to explain this hand-washing action in detail to a mental health professional, the action could easily be seen as a ritual and a symptom of OCD.
Beyond repetitive hand washing, I also like to count. I have had a love affair with numbers since I can remember. Yet, this fondness of numbers is likely a result of my ASD. Like many on the autism spectrum, I personify numbers. I sense whether or not I like most digits. I am particularly drawn to odd numbers, and find some even numbers to be “rude,” “stuck up,” and “not as kind.” There is no particular reason for these interpretations of digits. In addition, numbers bring me comfort. I seek out patterns, and patterns often involve counting and reconfiguration of numbers. There is a commonality amongst some autistics, in that we are attracted to the sense of ease numbers bring. This affinity to numbers doesn’t mean we necessarily like mathematics in general, but it does mean numbers are a part of our daily interactions with our surrounding environment. Taken out of content, and removed from my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, my number counting could be attributed to OCD. But it’s important to keep in mind that I don’t feel an impulse to count or have a need to seek out connection and patterns; instead, my connection to numbers and puzzle-solving attributes are more akin to a natural attribute I was born with—an essential and foundational part of who I am and how I exist. Unlike OCD behaviors that are brought on by lack of impulse control or need to relieve intrusive thoughts, the act of counting and pattern seeking is an innate part of my life. My connection to numbers feels no different from interpreting the sounds and smells in my environment. I don’t think about it. I’m not pushed to. I am not relieved afterward. I just do.
For those on the autism spectrum, we are susceptible to increase in OCD behaviors when exposed to certain situations. Stress can trigger OCD tendencies, as can change. Fearful, intrusive thoughts, such as fear the house will burn down, might push us to check the stove top before turning off the light for bed. Wanting to be included and appreciated, seen and heard, can also result in repetitive behaviors, such as checking the status of our social media notifications. There is also another element to consider in relation to ASD. We, as a collective on the spectrum, tend to stim. Stimming is a repetitive action, such as tapping fingertips together or walking in a circle, that helps us soothe ourselves. Stimming is usually non-voluntary action but can be mindfully practiced to self-soothe. Some of my stimming includes flicking my fingers, repeating a word, or clearing my throat.
Yesterday, I addressed social media addiction—a topic that has been on my mind for some time. Primarily because, while social media is undoubtedly helpful in bringing (autistic) people together in a generally easier and safer arena than face-to-face gatherings, the platform itself, and the way in which social media plays out in people’s lives, can become an OCD incubator. I have no doubt that social media venues, such as Facebook and Twitter, have teams dedicated to enticing consumers (us) to spend more time (and money) on their sites. I mean, even Sesame Street had focus groups to determine what would attract higher numbers of return viewers. As you might know, elements of Facebook, such as the notification light/sound/number, followers numbers, friends list, and like buttons, have been compared, in recent studies, to induce the same addictive tendencies brought on by slot machines in casinos.
Facebook and Twitter can become a major distraction to those on the autism spectrum, in that the OCD traits can be intensified. I know from experience. I was sucked in for over four years, and am just now pulling away. Moderation is advisable, but for a group of individuals who already have a predisposition to become attached to special interests, pattern seeking, and number counting, social media can be detrimental in relation to time wasted and relationships set aside. It can affect parenting, interaction with relatives, vocational aspirations, and motivation to seek out employment and/or partake in other activities. Hobbies, such as art, might be pushed aside. Reading a novel might be traded in for counting social media stats. There might be a tendency to have a feeling that one might “miss” something, triggering an OCD-tendency to like everyone’s status or share one last thing deemed “important.” Stimming physically can be replaced with stimming on Facebook (going through the stream of friends’ notifications and obsessively checking stats). Social media can become a replacement form of self-soothing, yet it may not bring the same results.
On the other hand, social media has brought thousands upon thousands of autistics and other neurodivergent folks together. It serves as a platform for awareness, connection, and fulfilling friendships. For some, on the autism spectrum, social media is the first place true friendships were made. For others, online social venues have served as the first means of escaping crushing isolation. And, in some instances, having online community has literally stopped someone from ending their life.
The dilemma in social media pitfalls is not found in the beneficial instillment of community; the dilemma is found in the way in which Facebook and the like purposely prey upon OCD-like tendencies of all people in order to make a profit. Obviously, we live in a land of consumerism. Social media companies’ tactics for increasing revenue are essentially, at root, no different from other industries. The bait is comparable to the (junk) food industries’ studies to make flavors addicting; the nicotine element of cigarettes; the sounds and sirens of casinos. But does that make it right? And how do we protect a community that is already susceptible to getting lost in patterns and number seeking? How do we protect a people who need community and friendship, but also would benefit from not being victim to big business tactics? And ultimately, who is to decide what is a healthy choice and not?
If it comes down to individual decision-making, then perhaps awareness of what we are purposely being corralled into partaking in for profit is a necessity. If it comes down to new avenues of connection outside a highly commercialized agency, then perhaps change is in order. And if it comes down to the pros and cons of choosing what is best for one, then it is reasonable to look at the pitfalls as well as the benefits.
The author, Samantha Craft, is the author of the critically acclaimed book Everyday Aspergers. Available on Amazon in many countries.