Contrasting Fascinations: On Obsessions and Special Interests

If you were to ask me what my main ‘special interests’ are I will quickly say music and politics –

I first became engaged in politics around 2011 when the second phase of the phone hacking scandal was wrapping up. Having watched the events transpire and done research to fill in the gaps, I was shocked that a countrys press could have engaged in illegal activity and inspired by the fact that a small number of good journalists could face up to a media conglomerate. The conceit that news corp had bribed and gagged the victims, that everybody at news of the world knew what was going on and that the met had sat on evidence of thousands of phones being hacked into was befuddling to my naive mind. All the way to the revelations about Milly Dowler and the 7/7 attack victims, I felt caught up in the intrigue, having a compulsion to know about every tiny detail.

At the same time I was first coming to develop friendships, mainly through an explorer scout group that I was part of. While I still found socializing incredibly difficult, music gave me a subject I could talk with other people about, as I’d been collecting records, taking my lead off of the music my parents liked: Queen, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath. When I get into an artist I become intrigued to know the precise musical movement they form a part of, and where they fit within the tapestry of music as a whole. Through that realization, I eventually joined communities of writers, and music journalists who were just as enthused about the subject as I am.

In a world that’s increasingly difficult to make sense of either through the anxiety brought on by societal events, changes to my routine or the heightened sensory environment I’m living in, music and politics act as a constant – elements that are always there but are constantly evolving in different directions, which can be charted and analysed, lending a sense of order and intrigue to my life.

This blog will look at thier uses, thier pitfalls, and more importantly the way we discuss autism with regard to special interests and obsessions.

Understanding Special Interests

Despite being branded a mainly autistic trait, obsessive and repetitive behaviours is something most neurotypical people do as well. Research from 2010 published in the Journal of medical humanities, found that despite struggling with communication many autistic people find a natural home in online communities where they can carve out identities.

More that this, the study found that the standard perception of neurotypicals within these groups is that they have communication problems, relying on generic means of body language that don’t actually convey emotion all that well. Some online groups for autistic people pointed to the neurotypical obsession with sports and sport operas, while one even came up with the name of a condition which they called ‘neurotypical syndrome’ which they defined as:

“ a neurological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity.”

This might appear subtly mocking, but altering the way we think about the so called ‘normality’ of neurotypical mind, might provide a clue with how we think about the occasional obsessiveness of autistic people. We’re living through a time of climate change, pandemics, political upheaval and mental health crises. More people have been diagnosed as we’ve learned more about autism. More than ever, autistic people want a voice.

Responding to ‘Obsession’

In 2017 the student Damon Smith planted a smoke bomb on a tube train carriage. The device thankfully did not go off, though Smith was sentenced to 15 years in prison. As soon as it was revealed that Smith was autistic, information about his special interest in weaponry and mechanics flooded the news articles. Even the judge at the time stated that “I am influenced by your history of preoccupation with weapons and bombs, as well as by your condition, which makes it difficult for you to empathize”

While Smith was motivated by his special interest, the problem in the Judge’s comment is that it presents special interests as a symptom of a condition. Tory minister Oliver Letwin did the same thing earlier this year, commenting that national security is at threat by “some autistic person or some strange youth sitting in some place in the world who’s connected to our network by the Internet”. This shows an example of autistic people being defined by a stereotyped obsession as being ‘tech geniuses’, and that being presented as a threat.

Occasionally, Autistic people attract attention for the wrong reasons. In 2015, an autistic teenager Peyton Pruitt was arrested for sending bomb making instructions to someone he believed to be in IS.

Although rare, autistic people may be at risk of being radicalized. To explore this idea we need to explore the role ideology plays in terrorism and the idea of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, who operate without significant contact with others. These people don’t need to spend years in militant groups. They just need to win themselves over on an idea.

Research by Clare Alley from 2017 points to numerous risk factors which may lead an autistic person to become radicalized. Obsessiveness and repetitive behaviours are given as one example, but this is in conjunction with”searching for a need to matter” or social connection. This demonstrates how special interests are important factors in the need to feel part of something: an urge that extremists exploit in thier targets for recruitment. Sensations of sensory overload caused by trauma can also lead to violent behaviour.

I’m using terrorism here as an extreme example – its easy to see how becoming too obsessed with any one lifestyle is negative. However, its frequently the way we choose to respond to these that makes the difference, both between how autism people express themselves, and – crucially – the consequences for autistic people who develop a passion.

Journalist Ian Birrel has done research into autism and more specifically the institutionalisng of autistic adults, sometimes after they become caught up on ‘special interests’. Its notable how they don’t necessarily need to be inherently harmful ones like terrorism or drugs, for this to happen:

“One mother told me of how her daughter also became impassioned over injustice, focusing on human rights issues with a moral clarity and vigour that drove away friends and freaked out their parents. As her anxieties intensified in adolescence there was inadequate support. She ended up in both NHS- and privately run hellholes, learning self-harm from other patients, secluded and restrained”

Ian Birrel. on the ‘cruel and destructive’ conditions children with learning disabilities have been kept in around Britain

Obsession can lead to dangerous outcomes but analysis of dangerous, obsessive acts committed by autistic people needs to go beyond pointing to the offenders autism as a reason. The point is not to shut people with special interests away or to treat them as a symptom but to have those discussions with support networks, with parents, with teachers, ans crucially with autistic people themselves so that they can learn to express thier interests in a safe way.

Harnessing Fascination

On a different note, it goes without saying that autistic people can also be inspired to do good in the world and throw themselves behind worthy causes. Case in point: climate activist, Greta Thunberg.

Her work teaches us as much about autism as it does about climate change.

Thunberg has expressed how she became depressed at a very young age when she realised the insurmountable challenges the human race is facing from environmental collapse. That’s what its like to be autistic for some. You see things through a wide angle lens, which inspires a mix of inspiration and exhaustion. Sometimes, the inherently political, societal lens some of us see matters through ends up causing us great inspiration and a desire to make the world a better place. It can also inspire distress and meltdown, as we grow attached to a passion, a cause a movement, and thus feel crushingly dejected to see matters take a turn for the worst.

However, its also through her autism and her activism that she shows people how it can be possible to think differently. She herself has admitted that her passion is partly down to seeing the world differently, and thus is able to rest her arguments in simplistic, difficult to refute language: ‘Politicians aren’t doing anything to safeguard our literal future on the planet, so whats the point of going to school?’ For this reason, her position as a public figure is important.

“It makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike for instance.”

Greta Thunberg

Its not just Thunberg. Plenty of autistic people have harnessed thier ‘special interests’ in inspiring ways. Los Angeles firm Auticon employs exclusively autistic people to work on and and tech innovation. Environmentalist Chris Packham, has a great documentary in which he explores how his autism has helped him, using that as a jumping off point to explore some of the autistic individuals making pioneering strides in tech and innovation. Indeed, some of the greatest inventors and scientists including Alan Turing and Albert Einstein have been rumored to have been autistic.

Really speaking, autistic people shouldn’t need to prove themselves in great ways to have thier special interests accepted. Don’t get me wrong, the voices of people like Thunberg can be important when autistic people are still being treated as a threat, and even shut away in dehumanizing ways.

Before I discovered my special interests in music and politics, I often felt quite cut off and isolated from my neurotypical peers. I still get that occasionally, but through my degree, my work, my music journalism, I’ve got plenty of opportunities to network and interact with people within those spheres. Whatsmore, my autism gives me a unique perspective, allowing me to bring something new to the table. It took a while for me to harness my autistic traits into something useful, and I’m still trying to work out how I can put them to use. Different autistics are at different stages in that progression. Its important that they have the opportunity to discover what they are good at and develop it in a healthy and liberating way.

An Atypical Perspective…

Neurotypical obsessions aren’t necessarily understandable: Something I’ve noticed from atypical traits is that they’re very expressive. This is due to the fact that we react in a hyper sensory way to stimuli, which also explains why we grow so attached to a song we like, or a hobby we enjoy. Contrast this with neurotypical traits, whereby that obsession with conformity often causes neurotypical people to communicate in a set of socially accepted gestures and tones which often make them hard to read, for autistic people anyway. I’m not sure what to suggest for this point, beyond the notion that neurotypes should perhaps be accepting when misinterpreted or not understood by an autistic.

Negative obsessions go beyond autism: This should perhaps read ‘all obsessions go beyond autism’ as its never the only reason we become fixated on a subject. However, its autistics who do bad with thier interests, that get a significant amount of media attention. Any interest properly focussed and understood can be used in positive ways, just as any interest which overtakes your life and which you receive no help with comprehending can be destructive. To begin to help autistic people develop thier interests as something positive we must stop discussing them as negative symptoms harmful to individual and societal wellbeing, and instead start talking about the massive opportunists that ‘special interests’ open up when properly nurtured.

‘Special interests’ have lasting positives: An interest in politics properly understood can open up pathways into campaigning. An interest in science can open roads into data or inventing. An interest in performance can help someone make inroads into art, music or theatre. We’ve seen how autistic people can achieve a lot with thier passion, and the unique insight they have gives them a new perspective on thier work. Sometimes an interest takes 15, 20, 25 years to properly find. My one piece of advise is to make sure you find opportunities where your passions can be properly expressed, but be prepared for that to be in places other than where you expect. I started off wanting to do creative writing. It wasn’t until later that I realised how much I enjoy journalism and being overly opinionated. That road of self discovery is one I’m still on, and one I will likely remain on for a long while!

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