Autism and special interests

The Hospital Series will be back. But we’re going to take a break from bipolar and go back to autism for a post. And something a little happier, or at least, something that makes me happy.

In the autism community they’re called “special interests”. Most autistic people have *something* they are very interested in. In the DSM (Diagnostic manual), they call it “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus”

Abnormal in intensity or focus.

Well let’s take one of my own special interests for an example. The biggest one. Musical Theatre. Intensity? Well, let me describe the feelings that come along with special interests. Just listening to a cast recording makes my heart rate speed up, my breathing catch in my throat, and I get a general feeling of wanting to break out of my skin. I get obsessed with this cast recording and want to spend all my time absorbing myself in it. I want to know every word, every syllable, every note. I want to know the history of the production, the cast. The NEED to know everything about it takes me over and I can no more stop my research than I can fly. The interest is ALL I want to do all day and if I actually have a free day to spend on an interest I might even forget to eat. It’s the only thing I want to talk about. I still struggle with realizing that other people just aren’t as interested as I am and may not want to talk in as much detail about it, if they want to talk about it at all. That’s an example of intensity.

Focus? Well, in some cases my focus is very narrow. Like a specific song. The song “Nobody’s Side” from the musical Chess, for example. I know which actress sang the song on each Cast Recording and how long each version is. When I’m distressed, I line them up in my head from shortest to longest.

Currently I’ve discovered the Off Broadway 2012 version of the musical Carrie and it’s started an Asperger’s obsession cycle…. For me the cycle goes,

Around 6 o’clock yesterday evening I discovered the cast recording for the musical. Immediately I found the entire 2012 performance on YouTube and watched the whole thing TWICE. Then I started researching the history, how the 1988 version of this show flopped and lost a lot of money, who the different cast members were…

This researching can go on for hours. It’s still going on the morning after. Because I just NEED to know everything about it and put it in its little box in my brain.

And it’s never consistent how long the obsession cycle lasts. As far as musical theatre in general goes, that’s been there since I was 5 years old and is still going strong. But the individual musicals cycle, and eventually a different musical will ignite the cycle all over again.

Occasionally a non musical theatre subject will become a special interest. Past ones have been tornadoes, or the computer game Minecraft, or Toronto Island. I was obsessed with running for a while, that was a good one. But they never replace the main special interest, musical theatre, the thing I would love to be able to talk to everybody about for hours.

Recently a professional suggested to me that musical theatre was an odd special interest for someone on the autism spectrum. Especially since I also like performing.

In response to that, I will say that I have heard a very wide range of special interests from people on the spectrum, and as for me, I was drawn to acting first because it was a natural extension of loving to listen to the musicals, and second because I wanted social contact (YES people with autism want social contact, they just don’t know how to get it). So if I was acting, I had contact with my cast. And if I wasn’t good at relating to the people, at least our characters interacted. I don’t understand why acting would be weird for someone with Asperger’s… the social relationships between characters onstage are only onstage so they end when you go home and you don’t have to think of what to say because there’s a script. And while you’re studying it you learn what motivates people and why people react the way they do. Sounds perfect to me. And I CAN relate to theatre people. I usually get along with theatre people and they get or tolerate my quirks.

So special interests really are something special. At least for me as an autistic person, they brighten my life. Even if they sometimes have a feverish intensity, I always have something to be occupied with. And absorbing myself in them makes me feel fulfilled, hopeful, and satisfied.

Some teachers and parents think autistic children’s special interests should be extinguished because they’re “not mingling” or they’re spending too much time on it. Well, teachers and parents wouldn’t understand unless they were on the autism spectrum themselves. I do admit, sometimes I spend too much time on my subject of obsession, but if that’s a problem, schedule some special interest time and schedule some homework time. Don’t take it away altogether. That would be like asking a bird not to sing.

And if the “problem” is that the child is spending all his time in solitary pursuit of his interest, try and open it up. If he’s interested in comic books, take him to the comic book store and talk to the people there. Find an interest group for him, if you can.

I don’t know if non-autistics have anything like autistic special interests, but I would say I would miss it a lot if it was gone.


2 responses to “Autism and special interests

  1. My 15 year old son has this identical obsession. When he was three he wore out his nightmare before Christmas video tape. He knew the entire show word for word. His latest obsession is the musical wicked but it encompasses pretty much all musicals and many I have never heard of. He has begged me to take him to nyc for his 16th birthday and is trying to get me to let him buy one of the thousand dollar backstage tickets he can’t afford. He too relates to acting and loves drama and dance, His career ambition is to be on Broadway and I am trying to steer him in another direction as we live in rhe middle of Canada.

  2. Hi. I didn’t realise until I read the above that something like that could be a “special interest” . then as I was reading it I realised from what you’re saying that I do exactly the same as you with books. Particularly books from authors like Jane Austin, the Bronte sisters, I need to know, to feel everything about them and everything around them, also to the point where when I’ve been reading their books I’m “in their world” rather than the here and now. I can function do many things, but I have this kind of residue covering me, it helps me to cut out the world even when I’ve stopped reading, I can be calm and in control. If I’m away from the book I long to get back to it but even if I cannot get back as soon as I want, it is enveloping me completely, I even use words, the mode of speaking as it was in the 1700’s, 1800’s.
    One of the films that kind of explains this a little, for me anyway, is John Carter. there is this whole other world, a parallel world which is the place where I should be. Where I long to be. Where I feel I belong.
    I’ve just been tested, am female, but my parents are not alive. I’ ve had to try to dig out aspects of myself from way back and to the here and now without him thinking I’m trying to find the answers that are needed to get the diagnosis.
    I read your prose and almost cried as you described so much of me, your words are unlocking me if that makes sense. It’s just that I had the final session with him last week and that was a session where I needed to pull apart the assumptions he made whilst testing me.
    How on earth does someone with Aspergers know what the Psycologist needs to know about you. I’ve read a lot, I’ve been on Reddit and talked with other Aspies there, I don’t repeat exactly what they’re saying, it’s just that many things suddenly ring a bell, and I realise that I either do exactly the same thing or something like it but over something different, like for you its theatre.
    Sorry this has been long and is not exactly a question. I’m just glad you are writing about yourself for others to see. I really want to help people, especially women who are not as frequently properly diagnosed with Aspergers, probably want to help older women like myself. It’s only right that they can be tested and the right outcome is arrived at.
    Ps. I haven’t had time to read everything about you, are you in the UK?.

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