The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s/autism includes the tendency toward:
“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).”
…At least, as described by those with cultural authority (a topic that will in itself be the focus of a future post).
(That criterion is Part B-3, for the curious.)
This is often shorthand-termed “special interest”, by some on and off the spectrum, and although I’ve used this term myself, you’ll see that it’s usually enclosed in quote marks, which I intend to indicate that although it’s a common and recognizable term, I don’t particularly like it.
For the record, I prefer terms such as “niche specialty”, “subject area of expertise”, “topic/subject of interest”, and so on. (Don’t those sound more dignified, not to mention more accurate?). Mix and match Dignified Terms until your heart’s content. 🙂
The word “obsession” has also been used.
I beg to differ on that point (actually, there are also aspects of the official criteria in which I beg to differ, too, but for now, I’ll nitpick on the “obsession” accusation).
As usual, I’ll explain, and as just-as-usual, I’ll start by defining the word. Good ol’ Mirriam-Webster to the rescue! Here’s what they have to say:
“a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly : compelling motivation”
Anyone who truly understands an Aspergian/autistic person knows that the word “obsession” is a little too far-reaching, and a little less accurate. From here, I’ll speak in terms of myself only.
In firsthand fashion, I can definitively say that I have a wide variety of subject areas of intense interest. I can describe the feeling I have toward these topics as a magnetic pull toward, a fascination with, and/or a deep curiosity about, these topics.
An outside onlooker might witness my engagement with activities or the pursuit of information regarding these topics and make the assumption that I’m “locked into” or “obsessed with” these subjects. They might assume that they rule my life, sap up all my time and energy, and dominate my thoughts.
Not quite. In fact, not even close. In regard to the autism spectrum criterion in question, “highly restricted” is flat-out inaccurate. I might concede that my interests may be “abnormal” in intensity or focus, although that largely depends on context; any lower of a level of intensity or focus appears comparatively superficial and incomplete, through my lens.
The “obsession” term skews the view even further off base. “Persistent” is likely the sole nugget of truth in the whole definition. My niche topics of interest are certainly not “disturbing” to me, nor are they likely to be to anyone else around me; if anything, my loved ones are apt to regard them with a mild curiosity, and (very) occasionally a minor annoyance.
An obsession often creates an air of anxiety; consider the stereotypical scenario of a guy obsessed with a certain girl. If the obsession is strong enough, he can’t eat, sleep, or carry out his daily tasks (such as his job, for example). Everything in his life revolves around the girl he’s obsessed with. He might have pictures of her on his walls or recordings of her voice that he listens to over and over again. If he acts on his impulse (I’m making the assumption that they’re there), then he might try to steal glimpses of her through a bedroom window or follow her around during the day, and he might get in trouble for being a “peeping tom” or a stalker.
My interests, however, don’t resemble that scenario at all. Rather than making me anxious, engaging in my interests can actually help me sleep. They soothe and calm me. I don’t get wrapped up in a frenzy while engaging in them or thinking about them.
There is also nothing “unreasonable” about my interests or their ideas. So I like music and digital art. So I collect scientific research papers. So what? It doesn’t cost anything, nor do many of my collections take up space (my musical, digitally artistic, and scientific literary collections are all on computer).
My interests do not dominate my thoughts the way that is consistent with an obsession. It’s not like I can’t think about–or talk about–anything else. It’s not like I can’t set my other interests aside and focus on my daily work. It’s not like I can’t get anything else done. If my interests were indeed obsessions, none of that would be true; my life outside of the interest would have come to a full stop.
Obsessions also often carry an aspect of compulsion or even addiction; stripped of an addiction without proper support in place, the person begins to display symptoms akin to withdrawal.
Conversely, for me, it’s all about relaxation and curiosity. I want to learn, focus, explore. And I want to do so in depth, with a sense of completeness. I don’t want pieces of the picture, I want the whole picture. I want to connect dots. I want to reach understanding. I want to feel solid in my knowledge. Tidbits and soundbites just don’t do it for me. They’re pointless and unsatisfying. It’s like, what’s the point of spending time gathering a bunch of soundbites and headlines? Meh. Give me the whole story, or don’t bother me with it.
I’m also not addicted to anything. I have plenty of interests. If my internet connection went down (hello Monsoons and thunderstorms in South Texas!), then fine–I’ll just grab a book and read. Or if my music player is charged, I’ll listen to music. Or I’ll walk around. I might be a little miffed at the unavailability of my internet, but that has much more to do with a sudden demand to task-switch than it does the loss of any addictive “fix”. Once my brain has made the switch and I’ve successfully engaged in another activity, I’m not miffed anymore; in fact, I won’t usually dive for my computer once I realize the internet is back up. Instead, I’ll find a Stopping Point in my “replacement” activity and complete another task-switch before I re-engage in my internet-based activity.
I would like to see the “obsession” association fall out of favor. It’s not accurate. It’s not nice. It lacks understanding. It drips with judgment and sensationalism, two concepts that serve no constructive purpose and only intensify ignorance.
Over and out. 🙂
Because Rainbows! A Tale of ‘Special Interests’ ~ December 3, 2016
Hi. I’m Aspie / autistic, and I collect things ~ December 1, 2016
(Image Credit: Cyril Rolando)