A recent study by Rachel Grove et al, presented earlier this year at INSAR, found a link between autistic “special interests” (no, I don’t love that phrase either, but it’s the accepted term for what the standard “interest” just can’t capture) and higher subjective well-being amongst autistic adults. The above graph (photo credit @YesWeJon) shows the huge range of special interests found in this project alone, and despite the stereotypes, it’s so much broader than just maths and trains. (Although, more on trains later…)
For autistic people, this won’t come as a surprise. This week, I’ve been reading Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism (edited by Barb Cook and Dr. Michelle Garnett), a collection by and (primarily) for autistic women dealing with all the highs and lows of life on the spectrum. It covers a LOT – and when so much is focused on children, it’s incredibly eye-opening to read about topics like ageing and parenting – but I particularly related to Christine Jenkins and Renata Jurkévythz’s chapter on intense interests. Apparently, it’s more common for autistic women to have several of these at the same time, and the pair outline the different roles and functions that their all-consuming passions – gaming, animals, music – have played in their lives. And the evening after I read about their interests, I had reason to think about the different roles of my own…
I slowly said the words out loud, knowing I’d soon get very acquainted with them. I was waiting for my train, a normal Thursday evening, except for the tiny matter of Muse announcing their new album details. Sorry, did I say tiny? I meant “the most exciting news in the entire world ever”. New song The Dark Side was also released with the pre-order and I, as ever, had to Know It Immediately. Admittedly, “knowing it immediately” was easier when I was 14 in my bedroom with MSN and Radio 1 than it is when I’m 24 and trying to navigate station wi-fi, but there I was, watching the same video twice, holding my earphones in, trying not to bounce around too much in the middle of St Pancras. I knew I’d be spending tomorrow telling my MP3 player to skip back every few minutes.
This is special interest logic. This is (one form of) sheer autistic delight. When it feels like everything else is changing, this is a constant, something I still have in common with that awkward teen sulking to Muscle Museum after another long day of Year 9, and that’s reassuring. Besides, it’s nice to know I can at least handle change better than most major comments sections!
If I’ve got Muse on shuffle, things are either very good (probably because I’ve got Muse on shuffle), or very bad (or at least they were until I put Muse on shuffle). At this point, they’re familiar enough to be a sort of musical comfort blanket and exciting enough to be a distraction from whatever else is going on. Sometimes, that’s the difference between a meltdown and, well, not a meltdown.
“All of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will… Where do you want to start?”
It’s been over two years since I left Oxford, and I still constantly go on about Oxford Doctor Who Society.
Doctor Who also became a special interest in my school years, but it was at university that it really came into its own as a social tool – when I lived in college, “What did you think of the new episode?” was practically a standard conversation opener. Then there was WhoSoc – what they don’t tell you about infodumping is that some people genuinely want to listen and will even respond with a bigger and better infodump of their own. I generally enjoyed the structured nature of student societies, and WhoSoc’s “we’ll start by watching Doctor Who, then there’s the option of more general chat that can bounce off what we’ve just seen” helped forge friendships that continue today, albeit with the help of social media. If standard conversation doesn’t feel like an option, perhaps because I’ve got overloaded or because all small talk is hitting the giant weather panic button, liveblogging a Doctor Who episode for friends is a “safe” (and fun!) way to socialise.
Something those friends are probably tired of hearing me say at this point is “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and the world is a wonderful place”. Essentially, this is shorthand for “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, I’m more excited about it than I can describe, and it must be true that everything will be okay and the world will keep turning because we need to get to autumn when her first series starts”. Again, I find myself handling change better than most major comments sections, and to have our first female Doctor is massive – when the time comes for the fourteenth Doctor I’ll actually enjoy all the speculation without getting dragged down by the same old tired arguments, and just imagine the children (of any gender) growing up with this as the norm for once… It’s basically just an instant feel-good button, which is handy to have!
“Hornchurch. Ickenham. Hainault…”
This is Jay Foreman’s Every Tube Station Song, and if you’ve managed to escape me showing you this already, you should watch it now. Go on. I’ll wait.
Surely at least part of you wants to memorise it too?
Until I happened to click this recommendation on my YouTube sidebar last year, I’d never really been interested in trains, but before long I felt slightly guilty for becoming the stereotype. Cue a document of Tube stations I’d been to, a spring discovering Geoff Marshall’s YouTube channel and a summer glued to All The Stations, accidentally spending ages researching the history and the details, Tube-map-themed-everything… Oops, I accidentally stumbled across a special interest.
The London Underground interest could perhaps be considered my most “productive”, because it means I can commute to work in London. On paper, the Tube isn’t exactly a great fit for me – the heat, the noise, the heat, the crowds, the heat – but I’m not exactly the only autistic person to really like trains, and the little strategies I and others pick up almost unthinkingly has become an interest in itself. (Writing this guide for autistic first-time Tube users was my idea of a fun post-dissertation project!)
That said, my current commute gives me the choice of Tube or Thameslink, and when the heatwave hit (more on that here), I avoided the Underground entirely. This was sensible, but it was also the first time I’d ever “fallen out” with a special interest, and with all things Tube-related giving me a twinge of anxiety rather than excitement, I was worried it wouldn’t return. It was some time after I thought the “danger” had gone before I went back – one stop as I briefly passed through London. Then a diverted morning commute taking the air-conditioned S-Stock lines to Moorgate and changing to the Northern line from there (the Moorgate Manoeuvre, my All-The-Stations-addled brain called it), then a full morning commute, then the same process for evenings, until I eventually completed an uneventful Northern line evening commute, about 8 weeks after my previous one. The switch had flipped back – it’s the Thameslink route that’s the risky novelty again now! – and my main motivation for it was missing that absolute joy that was still somewhere in those tunnels.
Sometimes, autistic special interests form careers. Sometimes, they help build key skills in other areas. Sometimes, they don’t, and that’s okay too – neurotypical people can have fun hobbies without always being “productive”, and so can we! For me, special interests are a major perk of being autistic – each one is a little bit different, and even if one is a little less active for the moment, before long it comes back around with a bang. Much like Muse’s album cycles, thinking about it…