This morning I got my triathlon race number: 336. My first thought was, “yes, okay, good” because 336 is a pleasing number. If I’d gotten 337, I would have had the opposite reaction. 337 is not a pleasing number at all. I don’t even like typing it.
What’s good about 336?
3 + 3 = 6
6 / 2 = 3
3 + 3 + 6 = 12 which is divisible by 3 and 6, also; the digits in 12 added together = 3
337, on the other hand, is a prime number. Some people love prime numbers, I know. I’m not one of them. I find primes frustrating rather than interesting because I can’t do anything with them.
The strength of my reaction to seeing 336 printed beside my name surprised me a bit. I’m still getting used to this latest eruption of OCD traits and how relieving or unpleasant they can make otherwise meaningless everyday occurrences feel.
My reaction also got me thinking about where my autistic traits overlap with my OCD traits. There is some stuff that’s clearly OCD. Intrusive thoughts, for example, I put in the 100% OCD column. They’re unpleasant, unwanted and hard to extinguish when they arise.
The number thing is similar. I not only find 337 unpleasant, I would be pretty uncomfortable if I had to show up at the race Saturday morning and have it written on my arms and legs.
The repetitive movements of stimming, on the other hand, are 100% autism. They don’t feel compulsive at all. Instead they feel instinctive and natural. I have no desire to be rid of them. The same is true of my echolalia.
There’s a grey area though, a set of things that fall into that unclear space of might-be-OCD-might-be-autism. Things that lie in the grey area for me mostly relate to orderliness. Not wanting to have crossed-out words on a handwritten page. Not wanting–and I mean really, really not wanting–The Scientist to fold a prescription I’ve handed him to hold while I get my blood drawn. Needing to have a stack of books lined up by size and spending way too much time deciding if the stack should be perfectly centered or lined up on one or two edges.
I can see how the stuff in the grey area could be an autistic need for order and I can see how it could be an OCD compulsion. Objectively, there is a lot of overlap between the traits of autism and OCD: repetitive thoughts, speech and action; sorting and ordering behaviors; obsessive interests and collecting; high levels of anxiety. There is even a higher rate of sleep difficulties and executive function impairments in people with OCD, which parallels the experience of many autistic people.
Perhaps one way to differentiate is by how the thing makes me feel. OCD traits are characterized as anxiety-inducing and unwanted. Feeling like I need to rewrite an entire page because I crossed out one word? Definitely anxiety-inducing. Especially because I recognize the irrationality of the act and resist doing it, which only makes the anxious feeling worse. Having to repeat multiple times that the prescription shouldn’t under any circumstances be folded or creased in any way? Yep, that makes me anxious too.
But lining up those books? That’s actually an enjoyable process. The outcome is pleasing, the process soothing.
My OCD traits are relatively mild and sporadic. The intrusive thoughts are something that I’ve lived with for a long time. I’ve learned to see them for what they are and I’ve become pretty good at patiently and nonjudgmentally being with them until they pass. They’re unwanted but manageable.
The compulsions, though, are something I’ve noticed happening with increasing frequency over the past few months. There have been a few periods in my life where I’ve experienced slightly different types of compulsions. They seem to arise and then disappear on their own schedule, usually persisting for a few months at most. Compared to what a lot of people with OCD experience, they’re a mild annoyance.
But this latest flare-up has me thinking about how OCD and autism intersect. Are autistic people more prone to a certain type of OCD presentation or perhaps to having unwanted obsessions and compulsions in general? Does autistic anxiety feed the intensity of OCD traits? What about a temporary loss of coping skills? How does having or not having a current special interest impact obsessions and compulsions? How does impaired executive function (especially impaired inhibition) affect OCD traits?
I don’t have answers to these questions, beyond my gut instinct that there is a significant area of intersection and that it might go both ways–creating either a vicious or virtuous cycle. We are, after all, a delicate balance of many interlocking parts. Changing one thing inevitably changes everything else, so it makes sense that a shift in the balance of my autistic traits would impact the balance of my OCD traits.