Autism “Special Interests”

4 black, plastic spoons in a row with one shattered one

I open this essay for autism acceptance month with this moment as it, and the exhaustion from the weekend, contains a lot of information on what it is like to be autistic. It is easier to convey the experience of being autistic through everyday life rather than a filtered presentation as it affects your life down to the smallest things. Therefore, this essay will narrate my weekend and explain how my autistic “special interests” play a big role in my life, both good and bad.


Clare Tyler is a student at the University of Rhode Island


Sunday – Dizziness

On Sunday, dizziness overcame me as I decided I couldn’t start another assignment. Sleeping in that morning had not been enough. I went upstairs to my bedroom where my cat Amy was napping.

“I didn’t know you’d be in here!” I exclaimed happily as I closed the door and laid down beside her. I felt my head hit the pillow. The dizziness went away as I closed my eyes.

Friday – Hyperfocus

On Friday, I went to the library to pick up a book I needed for my history research project. This research project reveals one of the strengths of being autistic: you usually have one or two “special interests.” Mine is early American history. With special interests, you get invested, or as neurotypicals would say, “obsessed.” You learn as much as you can. Because of this, I invest more than other students. My interest in history is not just about school. Special interests are more than that and are a big part of an autistic person’s life. The bad part about it is sometimes I go overboard. I study/learn until I exhaust myself, and that is what happened Friday. I got home from the library and found that I couldn’t concentrate. The hyperfocus had caused burnout.

Burnout

Disappointed that I couldn’t focus, I did what I usually do at the end of the day from intense studying: I got in bed, put on The Office (I re-watch the same TV shows, another autistic trait!), and scrolled through Twitter. I follow numerous historians on Twitter (another result of my special interest in history), and many posted about being at the academic conference in Boston. I felt my heart sink. I had really wanted to be there, but it was too expensive.

Saturday – Conference and Connection

Another part of being autistic: I connect better with certain types of people than others. I am not good at connecting with my classmates, but professors and academics? I’m not bad.

I find it so hard to connect with most people that missing an event where I could find connections is a big missed opportunity. Indeed, whenever I feel lonely, I just have to accept that that’s the way it is, but missing an opportunity where I don’t have to feel that way for a day? That’s painful.

My mom knocked on my door. She knew something was wrong. I started explaining how I felt isolated but couldn’t go as I couldn’t afford it. She generously offered to pay for it.

Not gonna lie: I was nervous for the conference, and I could only go for one day as we would have family over on Sunday. Still, I was going to make it count. I got everything ready so I could leave early in the morning. I had to catch the commuter rail from Providence to Boston. My dad prepared dinner late that night due to some guests being over.

Routine

Here’s another autistic moment: I have a strict routine. I wake up at the same time. I go to bed at the same time. I workout at the same time. I eat at the same time and don’t change up my diet for breakfast and lunch that much. It makes scheduling the days very easy. Part of eating at the same time is because I have IBS and GERD (conditions common among autistics). Eating at a certain time helps the symptoms, so eating late not only messed with my routine and created anxiety, but it also made lying in bed uncomfortable. I had an IBS flare in the morning, while getting ready for the train. I hoped that the flare wouldn’t mess with the train ride or when I was at the conference. The adrenaline wasn’t helping either.

Adrenaline

Adrenaline with IBS is a double edged sword. I’ll give an example from last semester: after a meeting with a professor about a paper, I was so stressed that I got a really bad IBS flare. Bad enough for the pain to keep me awake at night. The fatigue from it lasted until some adrenaline kicked in during one of his lectures, and the adrenaline stopped the fatigue from the flare. While too much adrenaline can cause a flare, the right amount of adrenaline can stop flares, so while on the train, I tried to calm down a little bit to get the right amount of adrenaline. It worked.

I walked into the hotel feeling ok physically, my hands still shaking with some adrenaline. The environment didn’t help my anxiety. I hadn’t seen a hotel so big or glamorous, and there were a lot of people. After registering, I went to the exhibit hall and started to feel like myself: a place surrounded by books is home to me, probably an autistic thing to say. I got myself a copy of Necropolis by Kathryn Olivarius for a shockingly good price as well as a copy of A Disability History of the United States and strolled around until it was time for the first talk I would be attending.

The talk was quite interesting. One of the panelists said he was a disability scholar, so I went up to him after the talk. We discussed disability, exchanged ideas on disability research, and he gave me his contact info. This was the reason I like academic conferences: the connections make up for all of the anxiety.

Laughter

During the second talk I attended, a member of the audience asked the panelists a question. They clearly weren’t sure how to answer, and I chuckled at the looks on their faces. I didn’t mean to laugh. It just came out. I think this might be an autistic thing as well: difficulty controlling expressions or other non-verbal communication. For example, last semester, I, without meaning to, reacted to something said about Alexander Hamilton during a lecture. Things just slip out sometimes. It wasn’t a big deal in class, and it wasn’t a big deal at the conference as only the person sitting next to me noticed.

I left the conference having enjoyed myself but feeling immensely exhausted and headache-y. My head throbbed throughout the ride home and didn’t go away until I had some Tylenol. I slept in the next morning (something I rarely do as I have a certain wake up time in my routine).

Sunday – No Spoons

While able to do a half hour of work with some coffee Sunday morning, that was all I could manage. That was when I laid down because of the dizziness. I was not able to work at all Sunday. Saturday’s conference, while worthwhile, had drained me of my energy (or spoons as some say). Was it socializing? Was it listening to the talks? Probably both, but this exhaustion is very typical for an autistic person after a social event, and burnout after exhausting yourself studying a special interest can be common too. The IBS flare I had when off my meal schedule? Also common, but autism is not all bad.

On good days, my special interest gives me happiness. It distracts from social isolation, and as you can see, it can create social connections. So while it has its downsides, it also has its upsides, just like every other autistic trait. Now, whether I will be able to get my work done on time this week is a question, especially since we have family over, calling my recovery time into question. But I don’t regret this weekend. I really needed that conference as sometimes special interests are the key to happiness for an autistic person.

Another thing to take away is that routine is extremely important. Sticking to my routine keeps my anxiety and other aspects of my health, like my IBS, in check. I don’t think that sticking to a routine or having a special interest should be pathologized. I have been complimented on my focus and organization and have been tempted to say, “Thanks, it’s the autism.” My special interest is why I’m so successful in school, and my routine helps me be productive, organized and keep healthy. While from a neurotypical point of view, some aspects of autism, like hyperfocus and sticking to routines, seem pathologized or excessive, they’re not. They can be keys to success for us.