Autism Acceptance Month – Day 5

Special Interests.  I guess that’s a more neutral way of putting it than the DSM-5 uses.
“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests)”.

Or, to explain it from my perspective, “A small handful of topics of focused Interest that I am passionate about, which can absorb me mind and body for hours, and which, energy levels permitting, I am always happy to discuss with anyone who expresses curiosity.”  In fact, even if energy levels *don’t* really permit it when I begin, I find these Interests re-invigorating to submerge myself in or discuss.

For me, being engaged thoroughly in an Interest involves myriad ‘mind tendrils’ reaching beyond what I’m reading to meet what I’ve previously read;  connecting this bit to that, drawing knowledge and connections from half-forgotten niches in my mind, dusting them off, and using them to illuminate another section.

Even when I’m only able to partially engage, which is most often the case since I first became a parent, I will tend to immediately follow any ‘loose threads’ of terms I don’t understand or knowledge I don’t have as soon as I encounter them.  In this way I learn broadly, and have even more connections to make next time I encounter a fascinating side-line.  That’s the positive side.  On the negative side, of course, is that you can spend a lot of time, and go very deeply along one narrow path of knowledge when following these loose threads.

For example, the information-chasing I did while I was trying to write an essay about symptom management in renal failure.  (Warning: lots of medical jargon.)

Thought processes

My personal history of Interests

Throughout this post, I’ll use the word Interest (capital I) to mean *this* kind of interest, as opposed to something I have mild curiosity about.

The first Interest I remember is horses.  From as early as I can remember, I have loved horses.  My mother tells the story of finding three-year-old me out in the paddock behind our house, holding a handful of grass up to the horse there.  It nipped my fingers  as it took the grass, and I smacked it on the nose and said, “Don’t bite”.  She was – quite reasonably – terrified, but instead of forbidding me to interact with the horse she showed me how to hold my hand so my fingers weren’t in the way.  Throughout primary school I read about horses, played horses, drew horses. For a while, I didn’t draw anything *but* horses.  I rode when I could, and read when I couldn’t.  I even owned a horse for a very brief period – a mare in foal.  The foal, Mary, was mine for – perhaps a month? – but it seems my impulsive father hadn’t factored in the cost of upkeep, so I didn’t have her long.

My other early Interest was fairy tales.  Things always came to a satisfactory conclusion in fairy tales, even if they were pretty Grimm in the middle. This love for formula and for satisfactory endings in stories has persisted – I love sweeping epics; Tolkein,of course, but also the Harry Potter novels, C.S. Lewis, William Horwood, Lloyd Alexander, even David Eddings, though I’ve often thought I’d like to rewrite much of his dialogue.

In other Interests I’ve collected over the years, the recognition of patterns is a large part of the appeal. Languages and linguistics have fascinated me since I was first able to realise that the French and German instructions on my Fuzzy Felt box connected with the English.  And how cool is ‘Klebstoff’ (meaning ‘glue’)?   I immersed myself in the ‘foreign phrases’ section in the back of our old dictionary, picking up information on linguistic structures without realising it.
Permaculture gardening , where the inter-dependency and competition between different parts of the garden is like a fractal image without a repeated motif – no matter how deeply you look, there are always more connections.

Music carried me through my adolescence, giving me a ‘home’ at school.  Fascination with history and natural sciences – biology and geology – became a palaeontology degree in my early 20s, but rather than following that into a career, I made choices that led me into nursing.
I have a great love of evidence-based medicine, and particularly enjoy searching behind pop-medicine articles to learn what the original study actually found.  That article where journalists suggested smelling your partner’s flatulence will make you live longer?  Yeah, sorry.  Not what the study showed.

Palliative care was my focus for 18 years; the more deeply and broadly you understand the body, pathology, and the effects of medications – connections – the more specific and effective your support can be.

More recently, of course, I have settled deeply into Autism, and in particular, the intersection of Autism and health, and the concept of neurodiversity.
I have also connected this with my Interest in healthcare to develop a service to support autistic people to access the health system more safely and effectively, to explain the Autistic experience to neurotypical health providers, and to translate research around Autism and health for those who don’t have an understanding of the concepts involved, or who struggle with the way academics write.

The down-side of Interests

The trouble with Interests, of course, is that they do take up a large proportion of your thinking – for me, they’re always ticking away below the surface – and you really want to share them with other people.  But other people, on the whole, really don’t want to know.

I admit that I can struggle with reading subtle emotions – I particularly find it hard to know when people are bored. I was ridiculed as a child for “talking like a book”, and reprimanded by parents and peers alike for “going on about that again!”  I learned, eventually, to talk in sound bites.  Never to allow myself to get into my stride, and if I ever recognised myself going into ‘lecture mode’, to stop talking immediately and apologise.

Then a decade or more ago, I discovered conferences.
Conferences are like the information addict’s paradise.  Not only do you get to listen to people who share your Interests talking about Brand New Stuff they’re exploring, but everyone keeps talking about it at break time.  Later came Speaking at Conferences.  People come and sit down and listen to you talk about your passion, and then they clap, and they ask you questions about it afterwards, and come up to talk more about it over coffee.  How cool is that??

There’s also blogging.  Blogging is the talking I’d do if nobody minded.
In a blog I can bang on for a decentish block of text about something that interests me, and people whose curiosity is piqued can read it and maybe ask questions that might send me off on another quest for knowledge.  It’s possible that a whole new vista of Stuff To Learn is just around the corner.  There’s never enough time to explore what you want to know.

But even when you do find a new field of fascination, your older Interests never do seem to leave you completely.  I still get an excited, teary lump in my throat thinking of horses – the smell of them, the feeling of riding, jumping, (falling off), memories associated with them.  I still re-read the books I have loved from when I was a child, over and over.

They’re comforting.  The best of my childhood, and a large part of my relaxation and ‘therapy’ now.




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