Autism in Nature / Collecting as Communication

Autistic people are “trashed” for having “obsessive” relations with objects: for arranging collections based on color, materials, size and shape, or any physical property they choose. But isn’t “collecting” a type of communication? It certainly is for visual thinkers,  human or animal! 

Nature’s Collectors

by Elissa MacDonald

When we think of collectors, we tend to think of people who focus on building a group of items, based around a commonality. This commonality may be the type of item, its  colour, the material it is made from, or even a person, and it is this which forms the basis for the collection. Collectors usually take great pride in their collections, displaying them both for personal enjoyment, and to show to others. Some collectors even use their collections as a way to socialise and meet people.

The Ptilonorhynchidae family well and truly outstrip humans when it comes to collecting. Indeed, they have perfected the art, and many males of the family repeatedly and successfully use their extraordinary collections to attract a mate. Nothing tacky or superficial about these collections though. The males take great pride in their collections, going to great lengths to add to them and often obsessively organising and reorganising them.

The Ptilonorhynchidae family is a group of twenty or so bird species found in Australia and Papua New Guinea. They are the family of bird to which bowerbirds and catbirds belong. Many, though not all, species in the family build elaborate bowers as part of their mating rituals, decorating them with various collections.

Bowerbirds are almost obsessive in their collecting. They think nothing of ‘borrowing’ items from their surroundings to add to their collections, often stealing items from backyards, bins and even other birds’ bowers. The birds with the biggest and best bowers are most likely to find a mate. (This is a human interpretation; we  don’t know what criteria female birds use. It could be an aesthetic choice!) Female bowerbirds will check out the bowers of their prospective mates, often multiple times before actually choosing a mate.

Video: Juvenile male learns behavior from adult male, but individual birds develop personal preferences – their own “style”. Note how bird “pairs” blue and yellow items.

The most famous of the bowerbirds is probably the Satin Bowerbird, an Australian species, famous for its collections of ‘blue’ (items). They are the bowerbirds famous for stealing blue pegs, drinking straws and pen lids. However, they don’t only collect blue items, anything else particularly shiny or yellow will also do, though as they get older they become more and more likely to choose blue things for their bowers. Ironically, although the blue collections of the Satin Bowerbird have become most famous, several species of bowerbird, including the Golden Bowerbird, Western Bowerbird and Spotted Bowerbird actually focus on green and white instead.

Bowerbirds are actually quite discriminating when it comes to their collections.  We may assume that, for a bowerbird ‘anything is fair game’, but this is not really the case and their collections are far from indiscriminate.

Most bowerbirds prefer specific colours and species also have preferred items which they collect. When away from human settlement bowerbirds focus on fruits, berries, flowers, leaves, shells and feathers, often having favourite items amongst these to collect and sticking to their preferred colour range. These natural objects are the bowerbirds favoured items and are found in their bowers whether they are in the middle of the wilderness or close to human settlement. Manmade items are usually only found in bowers close to human settlement (or picnic areas), but even when the more novel manmade items are available, bowerbirds tend to still choose items within their preferred colour range.  Human settlement may broaden the range of items available, but it doesn’t make bowerbirds any less focussed in their collecting. They don’t simply choose any new item they come across.

Bowerbirds who have broadened their collections to include items not naturally available to them may seem at first glance rather indiscriminate but a closer look reveals they are still carefully selecting what to collect, simply making use of whatever is available within the parameters of their collection focus.


Love dolls
Wacky couple Bob and Lizzie Gibbons share their home with their rather unusual collection of 240 love dolls. According to the couple, they like dressing the dolls up and even take them on shopping trips.

And an excerpt from: 

Even Animals Collect Things

The impulse to accumulate is instinctual. Even animals collect things. Magpies adorn their nests with bright and gaudy objects. The brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, hoards small gadgets and coins: Joseph Mitchell, in one of the essays collected in The Bottom of the Harbor, describes rats’ nests found on post-demolition construction sites containing such artifacts as “an empty lipstick tube, a religious medal, a skate key, a celluloid teething ring, a belt buckle, a shoehorn, a penny, a dime, and three quarters.” James Roy King, in Remaking the World, argues that the urge to collect is as firmly rooted as the erotic drive, perhaps stemming from “some primitive determination to squirrel away supplies for bad times and amass trophies indicative of one’s valor.”

Others might argue that the objects have a certain numinous quality. In Michael Flanagan’s novel, Stations, the narrator, surveying a junk sale, ruminates, “I suppose it’s like archaeology, to go digging around through books and papers and other people’s things.” He goes on: “The shards of life. You handle these used objects and you realize there’s no one to shelter them anymore, objects that might have been sacred to somebody once.”

I think of this when considering a handful of worn Roman bronze coins, part of an army payroll buried in the North African desert to keep it from invaders’ hands and lost for nearly 2000 years, recovered long after the men for whom they were meant and the institution that had authorized their issue had vanished with yesterday’s sunset. The odds are on objects.



Why don’t Neurotypical obsessions count as symptomatic of  ASD / Asperger’s?





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