The role and function of special interests

I’m reading Temple Grandin’s book The Way I See It. Although I’ve read a lot of books written by people on the autistic spectrum, I’d never read any of her books before. This is because I thought I wouldn’t be able to relate to her, as I have no interest in cattle, and I didn’t think I thought in pictures, as I’ve always been very focused on words. But then I watched the movie with Claire Danes, and as I watched, my mouth kept dropping in amazement whenever the movie showed what was happening in Temple’s head – the visual images she was making, the angles she was seeing, the literal images she saw when people spoke figuratively. This is what goes on in my head too. I’m good with words, because I was taught to read at an early age, and spent my entire childhood reading, and went on to study English literature at university. Language became (and still is) an ‘obsession’, or ‘special interest’, of mine. But I realised through watching that movie that I do very much think in pictures. Thinking in words really only comes about when I write – I suppose because my primary channel of language as a child was the written word.

I’ve been thinking about special interests, as Temple Grandin talks a bit about them in her book. Interestingly, on my Asperger diagnosis, this is the one area where there is not much information. I couldn’t think of any ‘obsessions’ when the psychologist asked me.

Partly this is because of the connotations of the word – people often use ‘obsessive’ to mean someone neurotic or someone who stalks someone. And it suggests to me a kind of helplessness and lack of enjoyment – someone who is compelled to do something against their will. Whereas the things I’ve been interested in have always been thoroughly enjoyable to me, and make me feel alive and energised. They haven’t felt like ‘obsessions’ from my understanding of the word.

And partly, my inability to think of ‘obsessions’ was because I simply didn’t see anything unusual in my interests. I thought everyone had such interests. And to be fair, they do. In recent weeks, I’ve observed plenty of people obsessed with football and the World Cup. I suppose the difference is that non-autistic people are able to multitask – the connections in their brain enable them to switch from one thing to another with ease, and to see the big picture, in which their interests are just one part. Whereas people on the autistic spectrum don’t have the natural ability to switch easily from one thing to another when they are fully absorbed in something. For myself, having an all-encompassing interest compensates for confusion and difficulty making sense of the world. In a confusing, unpredictable world, it creates a centre, a stability. The more I know about the interest, the more solid it is.

In some ways, I think the actual interest is less important than the fact of having one. While I’ve had a couple of special interests that have lasted throughout my life (such as in language, literature, and musicals), I’ve also had plenty of temporary special interests which have been quite diverse.  I find all kinds of things can be interesting when I really focus on them. I remember having a temporary fascination with Vikings as a child, after going to the Jorvic museum in York. It didn’t last because I didn’t have any books on Vikings or anything to fuel the interest with after leaving the museum. When I had books on things, they became more lasting interests. I had a lot of books on nature – flowers, trees, wildlife – as a child, and I would read these books over and over, memorising the different types of trees and birds, and drawing pictures of them. I no longer have any books on them, so this is no longer an interest of mine, but when I go for woodland walks, then my interest is renewed, and if I had some nature books now, this could easily become a special interest again.

But in terms of a career, and a focus for my life, it seems to me to make more sense to have just one special interest, to act as a kind of centre. For me, I think this will always be language and literature, in all its forms, and at all its levels. Life becomes confusing and unfocused with many interests. Temple Grandin’s book talks about expanding a special interest by making other things relate to it. She is talking specifically about using special interests as learning opportunities – finding maths questions about trains, for instance, if a child’s special interest is trains – but I’m expanding this concept in my mind and thinking about how finding ways to apply everyday things to one’s special interest could help with focus and motivation. Temple Grandin’s book also says that if a child is deprived of their special interest, then life loses its meaning, and I can relate to that. When I’m not able to focus on one thing, but have all kinds of things demanding my attention, I feel that life has no meaning. So a challenge could be to find ways to relate all of life to one’s special interest.

I’m quite lucky that my special interest allows me to do that quite easily. I like writing – so when I’ve had dull tiring jobs, I’ve thought of each day in terms of how I will blog about it (I’ve been blogging on various sites for about ten years). However, sometimes I’ve lost that focus, and then life has seemed dreary and pointless.

I suppose if one thinks creatively enough, one could find ways to apply all kinds of mundane situations to even quite specialist interests. Thinking of other examples, I like to draw portraits, and in social situations I can focus by mentally scanning people’s face shapes and imagining drawing them. I am also very interested in phonetics, and sometimes I can focus in a noisy environment by mentally phonetically transcribing what people are saying.

I suppose too that learning to think creatively like that, by focusing on how one’s special interests could apply to a variety of seemingly unrelated topics, is actually really useful for people on the spectrum, because it is a way of practising flexible thought. People on the spectrum often have a difficulty with thinking too rigidly, so this is a concrete way to be motivated to think more flexibly.

It is often said that ‘normal’ or ‘neurotypical’ people process the world starting from the big picture and moving on to the details, whereas people on the autistic spectrum start with the details and build them up to create the big picture. I know this is true of myself, that I need to start with the details. And it occurs to me that this is why special interests work as a way of finding meaning in the world. You start with the details of your special interest, and use it as a starting point, a vantage point, from which to make sense of the larger world. So special interests are a strategy for not getting lost in a confusing world – they are a constant frame of reference for people who aren’t able to understand the world in terms of seeing the big picture as the constant.

As I’m finding the Temple Grandin book interesting, I might write a few entries exploring specific issues that it deals with.