Attention 2 – interest disruption

I started this as an Autistic blog – yet the overlap with ADHD traits is making it veer into that area – what Autistic and ADHDer adults say are both resonating.

What occurred to me today is how attention can be easily disrupted with an important passion of mine – music – which ironically I can completely forget about.

This might be related to age and feeling increasingly weary – but I’ve heard ADHD adults say they can’t actually concentrate on a film anymore for example. I immediately think of my behaviour when I watch a film on my own. Typically I’ll pause to follow some other thought – look up why the actor I’m looking at is familiar because the thought won’t quiet down despite trying to tell myself that right now that isn’t important – or sometimes I can’t sit still – or go and get a drink. Or perhaps I’ll pause and come back and decide something else is more interesting.

With TV or film I’m less disappointed that I don’t seem to hold concentration as I can be happy enough watching the first half of something up to the point I’ve figured out what will probably happen in the conclusion – I have got my enjoyment.

I just realised however, while trying to listen to some unfamiliar music, the impulse to switch my attention half way through a 5 minute song.

This tends to happen a lot if I get on a sudden exploratory urge through the vast streaming libraries available online – sampling songs to add to listen later – then forgetting I’ve added them for months.

This time I wanted to actually listen and was enjoying the flow of the song, but my mind was still asking me if I wanted to look up some information or remember to listen to some other artist I’d been reminded of while listening to a memoir audio book – and so on.

Are ADHD traits getting more obvious as I get older? This is someone who has kept their mind on classical symphonies that last from 30 minutes to an hour. Maybe this was because I started doing this on CD when I couldn’t look up ten other recordings of the same Symphony – fewer distractions may have helped. Maybe it’s because when you’re a Neurodiverse person trying to Adult reasonably well and finding that harder to manage as age increases – and burnout becomes more regular.

Regardless of whether it’s getting harder to fix my attention or not, I need to find some way of finding the focus again – it could be as simple as finding something to fidget with and remembering that helps – and because attention is a problem – putting the putty or some other thing right in front of where I will listen to music.

The focus is there – because I know I can be completely locked into playing a game on the computer and forget to blink. I can also forget I enjoy gaming for weeks and become despondent. The same happens with music.

The interest disruption is a real difficulty because it’s possible to forget what provides some of the biggest dopamine hits and end up in what I imagine must be some “dopamine desert” where nothing is providing satisfaction and the mood starts to look like depression.

Attention – keeping things visible

Carrying on a little from the last post, relating to why posts don’t get published – where there are a large number of drafts in between sporadic posting.

Attention or focus has been a tricky thing as long as I can remember. I don’t lack an ability to focus – directing the focus is slippery, like trying to catch a salmon with my hands.

Focus can consume when there’s strong interest – but where there is no interest motivation evaporates.

For example writing a blog post may have a fascinating idea in the middle – but sitting down to hash out sentences might suddenly become very dull and that is where distraction emerges, like the woodlouse near my feet that I wanted to watch as I’m sitting in the garden.

Getting a blog post out isn’t only about an attempt to express something – it’s hampered by ideas that it’s supposed to be like an article in a newspaper.

I ask myself why I’m potentially worried someone might think my thoughts are a disorganised jumble on a personal blog – even if it’s not polished someone can come by and derive something from it.

Is this about attention and focus or me just wanting the satisfaction of having rambled and pressed “publish”.

Perhaps the actual point is habits over goals and systems – a habit of writing something manageable and “letting it go” rather than thinking I need a system to enable me to get anything done.

Now I’ve realised I was going to write about keeping things visible – and because I wasn’t looking at the mind map I’ve started using again I forgot that was the point.

The drafts and blog posts are not visible at a glance because the WordPress app needs me to go in and scroll through lists.

If you can get something on a canvas on one screen it can be more obvious what is calling for attention – the task that is coloured purple with a weird font and a fluorescent border.

This colour and quirkiness is stimulating to the distracted brain – perhaps the colours can mean more than the words.

Who knows if this post is “finished”, but I can’t spend more time on it and would rather have the satisfaction of publishing.

Burnout/fatigue and not being able to write anything for this blog

Circular title about me not being able to write a post, and it seemed a good way to write something short. When I do come back to see when I last wrote something, it’s usually deflating to realise I haven’t published anything for months.

At the time of writing this, it’s actually over a year.

When it comes to my experience of Burnout I forgot that I’d already written a detailed summary of what happens in Ambition, Burnout and Frustration and I nearly started writing something similar again before remembering to look at what I’d already written.

This doesn’t mean I haven’t written anything, as there is a substantial pile of drafts – but some of these were quite challenging topics that aren’t easy to finish. The one on burnout was pretty long, and the longer a post gets and the more it tries to say, the more unlikely it will get published.

In the last year the difficulties were compounded by having to move house at a non-ideal time after being served notice, where I handled pretty much everything myself, including looking for somewhere to move to, organising the moving out stuff like cleaning and van hire, having to buy appliances – the list goes on – with the net effect that I was completely out of spoons (energy).

Even though I moved months ago now, it has taken that long to feel like I can settle a bit and regain some ability to engage in my interests – or at least back to the baseline survival loop that still contains mild burnout every few weeks.

I’m not entirely negative however, as I’ve realised it’s highly likely I’m not only Autistic, but I also “have” ADD – maybe a diagnosis might not help much but I’m so easily distracted that is fairly tiring in itself, so I feel it’s disrupting my ability to focus on what I want – even remembering what my interests are in the first place sometimes.

Whether I like ADD as a term or not, it has helped to examine more closely what ADHDers use to be able to do the thing they need or want to do.

I hope I can write a little bit on how I’ve found something that’s working a bit to keep me focused in manageable chunks, but right now I simply want to write something and publish and stop worry about it being profound or perfect (which I could also write a lot about how that stops me from actually publishing things on this blog)

An observation on returning to “normal”

In the UK the government has a timeline for relaxing restrictions up to June, and I hear talk about returning to “normal” like everyone else.

Given that I’ve always found the “normal” noisy, overly busy world draining and unwelcoming, even partial return to “normal” has actually made me feel worse, and note how much the world before lockdown was stressful and overwhelming.

I can use the example of traffic on the roads. During lockdowns the roads were clear and more relaxing to use and it was actually more of a pleasure, except that it wasn’t possible to drive very far. Even partial relaxing of restrictions has unleashed a torrent of additional vehicles, meaning that some of my least favourite roundabouts have become a bit of a nightmare to navigate again.

It’s not just affecting me as I see other drivers are impatient and rushing and it’s like the stress is transmitted from everyone’s cars and vans and looming trucks, all vying to get on to a roundabout to save a few apparently precious seconds, which means being slightly earlier to meet the next queue of cars half a mile down the road.

It’s not clear to me what this extra traffic is for. Is it all just people going to shops again? Just the additional people unnecessarily travelling to offices?

So returning any kind of “normal” is not a relief, it’s emphasising to me how broken “normal” was before.

Wife of the above

Walking around the city I live next to I wandered into a fairly large cemetery that has been there since the mid 19th century, but I didn’t realise it was there.

It was early in the morning and it struck me that it’s a good place for an Autistic person to go for some peace, because people typically won’t go there to have loud parties and even bored teenagers might avoid a cemetery.

As I tried to find some of the oldest graves and noted people buried in the 1870s, where the stones were readable due to the use of metallic lettering. The dates give me a sense of time, and I wonder what the surrounding area was like in 1870. For one thing the large “box” stores on one boundary would not have been there, or most of the surrounding suburban estates.

While I was interested in some of the patterns of lichens and weathering, I noticed something about the way in which spouses are mentioned, and here’s one example.

Emma’s lettering seems to be a different colour

The phrase stood out – “wife of the above”. My feminist sense had been sharpened this week by reading an article about ingrained sexism around touch here – perhaps something to comment on another time, but the main point is that it made me feel somewhat sickened.

Here in front of me was another baked in element of sexism. In death these women have the main distinguishing feature of having been a man’s wife. Perhaps there was a bit to say about Emma’s 13 years after George died. Even modern epitaphs keep describing women as having been a great mother or “nan” and I passed one or two of those.

Another woman called Bithiah had her own gravestone, and even then she had been described as being somebody’s wife on her death in 1911. On another stone a woman named Mary was described as the “Tenderly loved and true hearted wife of” a navy commander – with his name prominently below and it didn’t seem like this is his grave as well. I can’t help thinking how this makes her also a higher status “wife-of-navy-commander”.

Why couldn’t gravestones say something else about these women’s lives? Perhaps they loved to play the piano or grow flowers. Yet here they are – “wife of the above”.

Observations while walking

I tend to notice details – this is the first time I’ve composed a post where I share some of things I notice, where I have taken a quick picture of something to note the observation.

I walked around a place called Woolbeding common in the area where I live, just a few miles from home. It is an old heathland area where woodlands were cleared for grazing (at least according to the sign I saw in the car park). For me it looks like thinned out woodland with a carpet of heather and bracken.

This looks like a fairly old barn, but I may be wrong. It seems like part of walls were repaired and the roof has been replaced, but the stonework and narrow slits for light suggest it could be over a hundred years old. I thought there was something pleasing about its presence.
A low stone wall surrounding grazing land, covered in mossy growth.
An oak tree off the path had fallen over, pulling its roots out of the ground. The tree is still alive but parts are rotting an colonised by moss and lichen. Had I looked closer I may have seen a load of beetles or woodlice.
This was quite an interesting shot to capture on a mere smartphone, by forcing the auto focusing lens to sit on a close subject. It’s a matter of luck whether the focus holds when you take the shot. You can see the lichen and moss are competing – or just coexisting – on the same bit of branch.
I love reflections on water, even if it’s “just” a muddy puddle.
A long, winding path that traces across the South Downs passes through the area, named the Serpent Trail because it has the shape of a huge snake. I noticed there were two stones each side of the path with snakes lying upon oak leaves.
Perhaps these were cast in concrete using a mould? Algae and moss colonised the pores in the stone.
Long shadows over a single track road to some houses, thanks to the sun being low down in the sky.
I passed some impressive bracket fungi living in the folds of a venerable oak tree.
I tried to tweak the colour in this photo to convey how it actually seemed at the time. It was approaching 4pm and the sun’s light had started to redden, and it was highlighting all the Silver Birches. It felt warm and golden.

I can forget how details reach out to me, and even when I do take photos I can forget to look at them. Preparing some images for this post made me reflect on what I notice and how it can be a sort of “grounding” when the world of people is too much.

Conflict of (intense) interest

I liked the title I came up with for this, yet I started with using the qualifier “special”. After I briefly searched for other references for “autistic special interest” I found it must have come from a non-autistic source. Cynthia Kim wrote a post about it, starting off with

First, I need to say that I hate the phrase “special interest.” It sounds demeaning or patronizing. All I can think of is a doddering old great aunt looking over my shoulder at my stamp collection and saying, “well, isn’t that special.”

In some cases I think it’s referred to like every autistic person has a particular “special interest”, and that’s usually something related to obsessive cataloguing of something, or absorbing information for its own sake just to annoy others with endless monologues.

A better way of looking at it, for me, is that I’m compelled to go into more detail than a typical person might on any subject, and there are far fewer wider, peripheral interests, or interests that are seen as typical so they don’t seem like interests at all. These are things like cooking, home improvement, clothing and appearance, jogging, cycling. I have a fairly tenuous connection to conventional interests like these, and they will often be so uninteresting that I could be accused of not looking after myself if I’m wearing faded clothes that are coming apart.

I don’t even know if any of the literature on intense interests in autistic people really does more than look at interests that cause conventional people to consider it “odd”.

I have major and transitory interests, where the transitory interests can be just as intense as my long running ones, but may only appear once or occasionally.

The major interests have been around for a long time, and will return as near obsessions when I don’t particularly want to do anything else for weeks. These aren’t necessarily consistent, and I am usually frustrated when they drop away for some reason.

Music (listening and creating) has been there as long as I can remember, as well as computing and video games. Yet either of these can drop out entirely for weeks or months. Dropping out of trying to play or create music causes me the most disappointment because I feel I keep repeating the same learning process because the lapse has led to knowledge being buried in a less accessible part of memory.

Transitory ones sprout up and lead to temporary consuming interests that tend to disrupt the major ones that I would have preferred to maintain regularly without being hijacked.

Usually when I do have a consuming interest, whatever it is, it is enjoyable, but retrospectively I’ll look at lost time for interests where I have an ambition to improve and feel annoyed that something random dropped in. It can seem depressing that focus is elusive, and it’s something I’ve always experienced.

So many things look tantalising or interesting.

Japanese calligraphy became appealing at one point when I attempted to learn some Japanese – after an intense Anime watching phase. It was a good activity for clearing the mind, but the materials are currently idle on a shelf. 

At another point I was so consumed with learning woodwork that I acquired many tools and ended up turning my kitchen into a workshop. I don’t recommend using a bench grinder in the kitchen to sharpen chisels, but any interest in having a clear kitchen had been overridden, even if I found it inconvenient.

I once got a textbook on Geology out of the library and read it through in a few days, but I was hardly interested in much else for the duration.

Learning can be immensely enjoyable but I have ended up in states where I’m compulsively reading to “get something out of the way” so I can leave it an move on to something I actually wanted to do. My brain has stopped comprehending what I’m reading and I’m scanning words. It’s possible the meaning went in to surface later, but the immediate experience is not enjoyable.

It’s similar to compulsively working “in the zone” to solve a problem but you’ve actually spent a long time going in circles when a break would have allowed you to hit on the right solution.

When I get distracted by one interest for days and it pushes out most of everything else I end up weary of it and wish I had balanced it with something else. It’s possible I’m getting better at seeing when compulsion has taken over as I get older, but I am no more organised or consistent.

I never forget that I want to keep writing for this blog, and I’ll note things down fairly regularly, but if I’ve become engrossed by a video game it will seem almost impossible to even plan to spend 5 minutes doing any writing. Writing this now is not by any sort of plan, it’s just happening at this point.

What I might be talking about is the difference between what is an enjoyable hobby and a creative ambition. Music wants to turn into something where I can see some result, like having actually finished a piece, and simply playing about doesn’t seem satisfying enough. This can be counterproductive and lead to motivation disappearing.

What’s in play is some executive function and organisation problems, hyperfocus leading to getting stuck in a loop, and demand avoidance thwarting any kind of plan, because I have no idea if I can do the thing I want to do at a time I’ve allocated.

There’s no obvious answer for me, but the best thing I’ve identified is having my living space oriented towards my interest, so my music equipment is prominent in the living room so there is a minimal barrier to at least playing on the keyboard. I have guitars that were shut away in a cupboard, but they are now always available to pick up.

This could work for other things I want to do – if I wanted to resume calligraphy it might be possible to leave that out on a table. The ideal seems to be to have a huge room where everything can be started without a load of set up time or planning.

I’m wondering if that’s what other people with similar struggles to me have done.

Dehumanising Autistic people in academia

An article here from The Autistic Advocate looking at dehumanising language used by people who are supposedly trying to help us, yet it looks like we’re being studied like advanced primates.

The main purpose of the article is to publish a letter by Dr. Sophie Vivian, who wrote a letter to Kings College London attempting to counter the dehumanising language she found in old research that is still studied in relation to Autism.

Dr Vivian has often been horrified by the way that her Lecturers and the course material dismissed, stygmatised and dehumanised the very people they were studying and at points, whilst offering definitions of what makes Humans, Humans, actively excluded groups of people (including Autistic people) because of what they considered deficits, often based on very outdated and antiquated notions, that have long since been moved on from and re-understood.

People such as her can hopefully make some difference to how things are expressed, but the reference to where all the money goes is revealing, as that shows who the research may be actually for.

Most of the government money is funnelled into biology research, which I suspect is “cool” and high profile, leads to expensive equipment acquisition and I’d be surprised if there weren’t some pharmaceutical companies in there searching for new drugs to sell as “treatment”.

Support services are relatively unexciting and won’t lead to awards or status within academia.

This likely isn’t an aspect of academic research unique to the study of Autism. Even if money comes from “public” funds it is quite likely that private interests are pulling the strings…

How are you?

It’s a phrase that people say all the time, and answer with the standard response of their choice with varying levels of apparent honesty. Good enough, ok, fine, very well, fantastic. The response is usually related to the person’s personality.

It sounds very simple, but this question is often highly grating to autistic people on a fundamental level. Those in the neuromajority will uncritically accept this conventional exchange of words and accept it’s “just what you do” – despite knowing that the question is not asked expecting an honest answer.

I’m one of the autistics who will always be annoyed by it, and I realise there are two main reasons.

I’m wired for literal meanings, and a lifetime of dealing with people generally not saying what they mean has left me confused and eventually cynical. The “How are you?” social handshake is sitting at the bottom of that edifice of misdirection. My mind just asks why this convention is maintained when it is completely redundant in terms of information, and adds nothing beyond “hello”.

As a compromise between actually describing how I am at length or saying something short but technically untrue I might say “tired” or “ok” if I’m close enough. I’m never quite sure if my evasions or failing to come back with “and you?” come off as vaguely rude.

Perhaps at its mildest it’s a chore like cleaning the kitchen – vaguely unpleasant but generally necessary, and resulting in less satisfaction than having a clean kitchen afterwards.

There is likely and element of these rituals having to be negotiated in a state of severe spoon (energy) deprivation and there is something more pressing in mind than dealing with a verbal handshake.

Will it always be resisted internally or can I learn to say something like “good enough” without thinking about it every time? I don’t know, but for the time being – unless someone asks me the question and I know they really want to know – it will keep setting off a short moment of conflict where I wonder about saying something real or not.