I’m autistic and one of my biggest obsessions ever was that of wood chippers.
No, this didn’t develop after I saw “Fargo.” It resulted after I saw a TV news segment about a man who got pulled into a wood chipper.
I was so captivated (if that’s the right word) by this freak, horrific way to go, that I googled it.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between an autistic obsession and a neurotypical passion, you’re about to find out.
In autism, at least in my case, special interests or hyperfixations choose the Autist, rather than the Autist choosing the obsession.
A special interest will just take off, with a mind of its own, and snag the Autistic with it.
Every day we are exposed to new information. This includes a story on the evening news.
ANYTHING could become a hyperfixation to an autistic individual.
The irony is that if you had told me, a year or five years prior to the wood chipping accident, that “One day, you’re going to be googling human factors analyses for what causes three Americans per year to get pulled into a wood chipper,” I would have never believed you.
So there I was one evening, watching the news, when a segment came on about a man who got sucked into a wood chipper.
Brian Morse, 54, was killed instantly. Prior to this event, I couldn’t even tell you what a wood chipper looked like – even though I’m sure I had seen them on the road or maybe parked along street curbs every so often.
But something clicked inside me upon watching this brief news segment. I had to “look it up.”
- Thus began my deep, intense venture down a rabbit hole.
- Before I knew it, I was googling for ANY wood chipper death since the time these machines were invented.
I read every single account, utterly fascinated, always trying to picture how the victim ended up on the intake conveyor.
One victim was even six, a boy whose father let “chip” some brush. One second he was there; next second GONE.
Now so far, this may sound like just a regular, typical pursuit out of a morbid curiosity – something that many neurotypicals will experience sooner or later.
But for me, it didn’t stop at just reading up on all the documented cases.
I found myself reading those human factor analyses about how on earth someone’s hand or foot could get snagged by brush, yanking the person onto the conveyor – in the blink of an eye – so quickly that they don’t have time to disentangle.
In moments they’re ground meat – at least their upper half, as that’s the part of the body that typically goes in first.
Sometimes the machine is shut off by a coworker before the entire body gets swallowed up.
There was one case, however, in which a man fell into a vertical chipper, feet first, after he stood on top of it and, believe it or not, stuck a foot in while the machine was on to de-bulk brush that was jamming the intake.
How My Autistic Obsession with Wood Chippers Manifested
Sound of a Wood Chipper. I wondered what one sounded like.
I wondered if I had heard any in the recent past, among the sounds of lawnmowers, circular saws, chainsaws, garbage trucks and other common neighborhood noise.
So I began peeling my ears for any unfamiliar machine sounds – in particular, that of a chainsaw.
After all, where there was a chainsaw, there might be a wood chipper.
One day I heard this unfamiliar noise. I instinctively knew it was a wood chipper. It didn’t fit the bill for any other neighborhood noise.
From that point on, I’d be able to instantly tell the sound of a wood chipper.
Watching a Chipping Operation. My plan was to seek out the chipper every time I heard one.
Whenever I heard that distinct sound, I dropped what I was doing and went outside to home in on it.
So if I was in the middle of a TV show, I’d pause it. If I was in the middle of client proofreading work, writing an article for the magazine that I was the editor of or editing an article from one of the magazine’s writers – I’d immediately exit my computer and dash outside.
If I couldn’t see the tree trimming operation, I’d get in my car, windows down, and cruise around the neighborhood, following my ears. I HAD to find it!
What normal person does this?
I’d locate the operation, park and watch the men loading brush onto the intake conveyor.
I’d wonder what were the odds that I’d witness one of them suddenly being pulled in.
One day the sound seemed particularly nearby. I jumped up from whatever I’d been doing and rushed to the dining room window.
Sure enough, down the street, was a chipping operation. For at least 20 minutes I watched two men chip.
Then one day, the sound was extremely close to my unit. Lo and behold, from outside my living room window I saw a chipper parked in the cul-de-sac.
My mouth watered and I dashed outside. From beside my car I watched a man tossing brush onto the conveyor.
He noticed and seemed to wonder what in the heck I was watching him for.
I volunteered, “I just want to see how this is done.” This was my first close-up of chipping in action.
When he was done I gave him a thumbs up.
Noticing Wood Chippers Everywhere on the Road. I started seeing them everywhere while driving.
I’d always want to catch the name of the tree care company on the truck that was towing the chipper.
I’d always try to pull up alongside to get a look at the driver. I was even hoping to get a boyfriend who was a tree care worker (arborist). How COOL that would be!
What a nutcase I was – having NO idea that all of this was being driven by Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I had merely thought that it was just me being me.
Reading Analyses of Wood Chipper Fatalities. I read all the information I could find online about just how an average of three Americans per year end up ground up by a wood chipper.
What was so unique about that three per year? Why didn’t these fatalities occur more often, what with all the tree cutting that goes on every day across the continent?
Trespassing in a Stranger’s Yard to Watch Tree Trimming. I still can’t believe I’d actually done this.
I heard a chainsaw. Stepping outside, I realized it was coming from halfway down the street, from the backyard of a four-plex row of units.
Turns out it was a man sawing off branches in a tall looming tree that was in the backyard that abutted the end four-plex unit.
Without thinking, I walked to the back of the unit, stood on the patio and took to observing the arborist in action.
Suddenly a woman’s voice said from behind, “What are you doing on my property?”
I turned and said, gesturing towards the man high up in the tree, “I’m watching him.”
She replied, “This is private property. Get off my property.”
I then realized what I had done and quickly exited the patio, briskly walking back to my unit, hoping to dear God she wasn’t watching. I couldn’t look back.
Joining an Arborist’s Forum. I signed up using a fake name. I wanted to join in on discussions about wood chipper deaths.
I read all the threads about wood chipper fatalities, and also got interested in other forum topics such as “Chicks with Chainsaws.”
Yes, there are women who don chainsaws, climb trees and saw off thick heavy limbs.
Every day I read some threads, wishing I had the knowledge that all these arborists had.
I even wondered how much knowledge I could amass if I devoted one hour a day, every single day for the next 12 months, to reading threads.
But I didn’t go that far. Nevertheless, I learned a lot, including industry jargon.
I learned that the pulley and harness system, that arborists use to ascend a tree, is designed to assist heavyweight workers up a tree.
I learned that the biggest danger of a wood chipper is debris that bounces off the rotating blades and hits people in the head or face.
Wanting a Part Time Job Chipping. I would’ve jumped at this opportunity, but never found an ad for it.
Wanting a Part Time Job Editing a Tree Care Industry Magazine. Ditto.
Imagining an Autistic Child Got Pulled into a Chipper. This is an incredulous irony. My obsession occurred years before I began suspecting I had ASD.
But amazingly, I’d replay in my head, over and over and over, a story in which a woman hires a tree care company to cut down a tree.
At one point, the crew turns off the machine and goes inside her house for a break.
Meanwhile, an autistic little boy – who’s either playing hide-and-seek or just wandering around exploring – crawls inside the chipper.
He’s either intent on keeping hidden during the game, or he falls asleep.
A worker comes back outside and, failing to check the intake conveyor, turns on the machine.
The boy is instantly sucked in, and the chute spews out a reddish substance that ends up on the leaves of a nearby tree.
The worker has no idea what just happened as he starts placing brush on the conveyor.
The boy is reported missing, and nobody has a clue of his whereabouts. Meanwhile, his tissue remains stuck on the leaves.
As for Brian Morse, the coroner’s report stated that there’d been “total morselization.”
This was not meant to be a pun on the victim’s name. When I read this, I immediately knew that morselization was a coroner’s term.
However, I couldn’t believe that some clown, who posted a comment to one of the versions of this story, actually believed that the coroner meant that to be a pun.
My obsession lasted about two years. After that it gradually left the autistic realm and was downgraded to neurotypical level.
But one day I decided to search for wood chipping deaths in Google Images (or was it Wikimedia Commons?).
Believe it or not – I came upon a picture of the very morselization from that report.
Yes, the picture was of many morsel-sized pieces of Brian’s body, laid out on a table. And yes, I spent some time inspecting all the pieces.
In case this would sound too incredible to be true to readers, I decided to search for it again for this article — and this time found the image on reddit.com.
Here is the link to the image (you’ll need to click a few times to access it). IT’S NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.
So there you have it: features of an autistic obsession. You may be wondering why those features don’t include talking all the time about it to anyone who’ll listen.
At the time, I had no friends. I didn’t socialize. I worked from home. The only people in my life were my parents.
I would’ve never brought the topic up to my mother, because I would’ve already known that she’d never want to hear about this interest.
My father actually would’ve allowed me to info-dump, but the idea of sharing my “special interest” for wood chippers seemed too odd, even for me. So I kept it to myself.
There are Autistics who, indeed, will keep a special interest to themselves. This doesn’t make it any less of a hyperfixation.