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.