Following on from my post on special interests, I have been thinking a bit more about what these interests mean to me and how they might be perceived from the outside.
“Special interests” are obliquely referred to in the notorious DSM criteria under Part B3:
“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g. strong attachment to and preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests”.
As usual, this kind of wording is very hard to decode, and I find it almost impossible to see my own experience reflected there. Almost every single word in that quote would merit its own discussion, but that’s entirely too much for this post. Instead, let me voice a small suspicion that has been building in my mind as I thought about interests. Is it possible that in the term “abnormal in intensity or focus” cultural prejudices are coming through about which interests are “normal” and which are “abnormal”?
In popular culture, some subjects have become a signifier, a shorthand for weirdness and nerdiness. Mathematics and physics, especially particle physics, quantum physics, cosmology, string theory are prime examples. If a character, say on TV, has this kind of interest, you know immediately what type of person they are. With the science interests mentioned above, they will be the “quirky genius” type, definitely uncool but still admired in some way for their braininess (because normal people are stupid about mathematics, don’t you know). Still, this trace of admiration does not change the fact that they are characterised as different, other, abnormal. They are tolerated because of their cleverness, but their more unusual behaviour (rambling!) needs to be kept in check.
Here’s a long-standing pet peeve of mine: why don’t they let these people talk? Whenever one of these characters starts to say something interesting, they get cut off. I’ve seen this happen dozens of times, most often with Ducky on NCIS and Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds. I wish they would let them talk. But they don’t, and I’m left hanging. I still don’t know why the Swedes drove on the left side of the road but then changed, or what the deal with Carlo Collodi’s nose obsession was. But again, the talking doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s just a signifier to show, again, that this person is “a bit different”, and the normal reaction to this is to smile tolerantly but tell them to shut up.
There are other kinds of interests, however, which are also uncool and don’t even carry the slightly redeeming connotation of braininess. Trains are probably the most prominent example. The Trainspotter in British popular culture is a deeply boring guy (it’s always a man) who wears an anorak* and hangs around on station platforms, writing down the engine numbers of locomotives in a little notebook. What could be more pointless, boring and weird? Trainspotters are social outcasts and the object of much ridicule. The trope also works if you exchange trains for another mundane object, say bricks or lightbulbs. This might be where the “preoccupation with unusual objects” in the criteria comes from.
*the connection between the garment and the trainspotterish type of person is so strong in British English that the word “anorak” can be used not only for the garment but for the weird and boring person themselves. It’s practically synonymous with “nerd”
But who decides what is unusual and what isn’t? Who decides what’s cool and what’s weird? In my experience, everything can become interesting when you really delve into it. I have experienced this myself with bricks, lightbulbs and light switches, and the same will be true with lots of other things that I so far haven’t featured in my life. Not all things will be equally interesting to all people, but the point still stands: everything has the potential to become interesting to someone, and let me re-iterate, I’m not just theorising here, I can back this up with my personal experience.
So why not open yourself to that potential? Why not open your mind and become receptive to 101 fascinating facts about keys? Is it so hard to train your focus on something you haven’t considered before? Are you so stuck in your “normal”, mainstream interests that you can’t conceive of anything outside them? Why not try it before you push something away as weird and boring?
I’m only speaking for myself here, but I really enjoy listening to someone speak knowledgeably about their subject of interest. I’m not into trains myself, but I have friends who are, particularly steam trains. I have heard them talk about a particular locomotive and how it visited this place where it usually didn’t go in July 1962 or whatever, and where it went afterwards, and then some alteration was made on it etc. I have no particular interest in the subject myself, but for me there is a real joy in listening to such knowledge. It gives me an emotional buzz, something I can feel almost physically, a feeling similar to that I get from my own interests, but slightly different and probably not so intense. I think it’s the “knowledge” that makes me happy, knowledge simply as such, in any shape or form. If someone can talk passionately about something, be it taxation or the life of earthworms, I am happy to listen.
The above refers to all interests that people might have, special and not so special ones. The following refers to what I keep calling “special interests”, because, like I said before, some interests are more special than others.
I now come to a second problem with the criteria mentioned above, and it’s more generally a problem with autism “experts” who only see what’s happening from the outside, but don’t know what a “special interest” really means to the person engaging with it. I have written in my previous post how they make me feel. Another relevant post is this recent one on The Silent Wave.
Looking at the criteria, I can almost see the experts standing around the autistic person, stroking their chins and muttering : “They’ve spent hours doing this now! What could possibly be so interesting about [insert “unusual object” of choice here] that they focus on it so much? No normal person would find [object] that interesting. Therefore this is not normal. Let’s call it abnormal in focus and excessively circumscribed.” And off they go and write it down, pleased that they have found a definitive description.
But of course they have no idea what goes on inside that autistic person they observed in my fictional scenario. That person is not just pursuing an interest, like anyone would with a hobby. No, that person is in a place of calm, of happiness, their interest provides a refuge from the world, a place of certainty, a realm where they are in control. The interest provides them with a little bubble of bliss, so yeah, the “intensity of focus” is kind of the point. To quote Laina from the post mentioned above, she says it’s “my pressure release valve, my main go-to strategy for relieving stress, […] my inner sanctuary, my brain’s calm and happy place.” Musings of an Aspie calls it “a shelter from the storm”. Far from being “abnormal” or “unusual”, it’s a necessity for that person’s mental well-being. I know it is for me.
If you take that as a starting point, if you define a “special interest” as a place of inner peace and happiness, it follows that the subjects of these interests are as individual as the people enjoying them. There is very little point in dividing them up into “normal” and “abnormal” and getting all frowny if it’s something that you, personally, never thought of as interesting. As I said in the beginning, the division into normal and weird interests seems to be largely a cultural phenomenon. The subject matter is not the point. It’s what the person gets out of it.
“But”, I hear the experts say, “what about the person who is only interested in fridges? Or late medieval women’s head coverings? That’s not normal, right? That’s excessively circumscribed!”
Let me point you to my previous paragraph. “As individual as the people”, I said, and “little point in dividing them up”. Who’s to say what a particular person finds interesting, what makes them happy, what floats their boat. This is not something you can fully understand intellectually, this is largely an emotional issue, and to understand it you have to understand the emotions behind it.
That’s the key, the emotional aspect. I must confess I hadn’t this figured out until very recently. It was the dropping of that particular penny that prompted me to write this post. I hadn’t even sussed it when I wrote my previous post. That post still stands, as it is primarily about my own interests, which in my opinion are not tightly circumscribed, but expand ever outwards. It can’t be denied, though, that some people really do have very narrowly focussed special interests. I didn’t understand why, and thought that must be something different from my interests. But now I think differently.
Consider this: in a comment thread on a post on Musings of an Aspie a commenter talks about her son whose passion is stop signs. Follow the link and read for yourself, but let me just quote some of her comment:
“I get so frustrated when people tell my 9-year-old son that “they’re not going to talk about this (stop signs) anymore” then try to shut him down. This is his passion. Instead of trying to shut him down, I have found ways to encourage him to broaden his view of all things “stop sign”. Tommy is now going online to find out what stop signs look like around the world. He utilizes Google Translate to learn how to say “stop” in other languages. Tommy is now drawing maps (they look like an 9-year-old drew them) of different neighborhoods and placing the stop signs where they go. He’s able to tell you any distinguishing characteristics of each sign that makes it unique…and its’ precise location.”
A bit further down the thread she also talks about how her son makes his own stop signs from little stalks of wood and paper, carries a stop sign around with him in his pocket etc. So clearly, stop signs are the thing for him, and nothing else will do.
I couldn’t really relate at first. I thought “that’s a bit restricted” and didn’t see it as similar to my own interests which tend to become much broader. But I now realise that I was taking the wrong approach to understanding.
I realised that what I get out of my special interests and what this boy gets out of stop signs is the same thing. If my reaction to my interests is an autistic one, then this boy and I probably feel the same thing. And that’s the key: the feeling. As I said above, don’t analyse it intellectually, look at the emotional foundation of a special interest. And that’s when I realised that this boy feels the same emotional satisfaction when he looks at pictures of stop signs that I get from reading a book on “The Tudor Law of Treason”. It’s not different at all. At the core, myself and the boy are the same. Personally, I don’t see the attraction of stop signs, but we are all individuals. What floats one person’s boat will not float another’s but the point is that the boat floats at all.
This was a big realisation for me, and in trying to convey this I’ve probably repeated myself a few times. Because this is an emotional issue at the core, it is very hard to describe the emotions involved. This is also why the chin-stroking experts are getting it wrong, because they completely overlook the emotional component and what it means for the autistic person. They approach it intellectually, and can’t comprehend it. If only they didn’t just stand around stroking their chins, but instead asked the person why they spend so much time and focus on something that appears pointless to them. I know it’s difficult to explain, but I’ve tried, and so have others before me, and together I think we’ve gone some way to explaining what’s really going on. So please, experts: don’t just look and stroke your chins, read and listen as well!
To finish, let me go back to the issue of “normal” and nerdy interests, but with a positive spin this time. Sometimes the interrupted enthusiasts get their own back. This is one of my favourite bits of dialogue from an episode of Criminal Minds:
Spencer Reid: …[talks in great detail about the history and meaning of Halloween]…
David Rossi: “Yeah, I don’t want to know that.”
Spencer: “Yes, you do!” [continues to talk undeterred]
Image: a paragraph from “An Introduction to English Legal History” by J.H. Baker, my latest purchase and the kind of thing I read for fun