Denying or restricting access to a ‘special interest’ is a subtler form of abuse [Mental Health Monday]

I’m going to try not to get too graphic here, for obvious reasons.  I don’t want to kick off the week with a megadose of negativity or trigger a meltdown or shutdown for anyone.  After all, that’s not exactly conducive to fostering mental health, nor is it the true spirit of my little ongoing informal Mental Health Monday series.  That said, those who are particularly sensitive or feeling fragile today might want to tread somewhat carefully. ❤


I have read countless stories and brief anecdotes of the various forms of abuse that are easily recognized as such.  Thus, I don’t really want to go into too much depth about that here.  That’s not to shove anything under the rug, remain silent and unaware, or slight/ignore those who have suffered in any way.  It’s just that those stories have been written by the people whose stories they were to tell.

Today, I would like to shed some light on a few “other” forms of what I believe to be abuse.  The tricky part is that I will probably encounter some disagreement, because this area is relatively unexplored and these actions don’t necessarily fit into the stereotypical, clear-cut-and-dry definitions.

I should also disclose at this time that I’m in a lot of physical pain, and for me, physical pain often interferes with my cognitive function, so my words might be a little slow or clunky in coming. 🙂

Today I’m going to discuss one of two caregiver behaviors that I believe are subtle forms of abuse–perhaps unintended abuse, but abuse nonetheless.

These are:

  • Restricting access to “special interests” too readily, which is the topic of today’s post, and
  • Restricting, criticizing, or attempting to stifle “stimming” activities, a topic for a future post

Before I begin, let’s define the basic vocabulary: what exactly is abuse?

Good ol’ Dictionary.com to the rescue.  The aspect of the definition applicable to our purposes is:

“to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way”

HealthyPlace.com goes further yet, offering a definition of emotional abuse:

“any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth”

HealthyPlace.com lists a few examples of emotional abuse (I’m issuing an obvious Content Warning/Advisory on this part for sensitive individuals). ❤

I’ve selected a few of those that are especially relevant to this discussion:

  • Making an individual fear that they will not receive the food or care they need
  • Socially isolating an individual
  • Withholding important information
  • Ignoring or excessively criticizing

The list above is merely a collection of examples, and is not at all an exhaustive or complete list.  It’s only intended to give one an idea or “feel” for the nature of emotional abuse, and I would venture to say that the list consists mostly of the most egregious examples; I also venture to say that there are many, many other examples that are far less obvious but nevertheless equally devastating.

Now, let’s tackle the topic of “special interests” and how the excessive restriction thereof could be considered abuse.

I’m still reading Tony Attwood’s definitive “Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome”, and that’s slow-going, too, which does not have anything to do with the quality of the book, but rather, my own limitations.  I have recently reached the part about “special interests” and the various information and recommendations he gives for handling these interests.

For the most part, he’s singing my song.  Of course he is; it’s a book on Asperger’s and I am indeed Aspergian, so that’s a natural connection to make. 😉

Unfortunately, there are a few parts with which I take issue; I’m an Aspergian/autistic person, after all, and he isn’t.  As forward-thinking as he was for his time (and still is), there’s no mistaking the fact that like any human being, he’s going to tend to fall back on what he knows, which will be influenced by his training.

I’ll explain…

He characterizes “special interests” very accurately, describing them quite clearly.  Where we differ somewhat is where the recommendations are concerned.

He mentions restricting access to the special interest, and the attitude he takes toward doing this is far too casual and cavalier; in my opinion, his willingness and readiness to do this are all-too-quick-and-easy, seemingly downplaying the internal effects that this restriction might have, and up-playing the necessity for doing so.

To be clear, I’m not talking about situations in which a “special interest” poses genuine threat of harm, significantly impacts the person’s ability to live a decent quality of life, or genuinely unduly negatively impacts another person.  If someone is headed for a psychotic episode because they’re severely sleep-deprived due to having spent 23 hours a day engaged in their niche area of interest, then that’s a problem.  The same could be said for someone who is about to fail high school because they won’t study anything except the “special interest” subject, especially if their parent(s) or guardian(s) are still supporting them.  (Some might say that that stance is “ableist”, but I maintain that one’s rights end where another’s begin, which is the only logical stance to take, because otherwise, whose rights are more important, and who gets to make that judgment call?)

Sticky.

So yeah, the extreme situations are not what I’m talking about.  If an intense interest is a genuine problem or poses a significant risk or impact, then yes, it needs to be restricted or otherwise altered so as not to have that negative impact.

When I make the thesis statement that restricting access to a “special interest” might be considered a form of abuse, what I am talking about are those situations in which a person, usually a child, is denied access to–or the ability to engage in–their area/activity of interest for no reason other than, say, a punishment, for example, or perhaps “just because”…

“Just Because you shouldn’t spend that much time on one thing.”

“Just Because you need to get out more.”

“Just Because it’s something you do by yourself and it’s ‘weird’ that you’re so comfortable by yourself.”

“Just Because it’s time to do something else now.”

“Just Because we don’t understand what you’re doing (and that which we don’t understand, we start to fear and loathe, but rather than admit our lack of understanding, we’re going to shine the uncomfortable spotlight on you because after all, you’re the weird one).”

In each of these cases, there is no good reason for restricting access to the “special interest”.  The interest itself isn’t the issue, nor is there a problem with the Asperger’s/autistic person themselves; they were doing just fine, minding their own business.

In the “Just Because”s above, the only real issue (and the common denominator) is the non-autistic, third-party observer, passing judgment on either the Asperger’s/autistic person, their area of interest, or both.  The way I see it, most of the time, the judgment is low-hanging fruit, stemming from a deeper feeling of resentment, or perhaps a lack of acceptance, or maybe even something else, completely unrelated, in that person’s (the one doing the judging) life.

In those cases, the Asperger’s/autistic person becomes a scapegoat (whether the emotions from the other person are related to the spectrum person or not).  Except that while some of those non-autistic people (I say “those” because I know very well that none of this applies to many of the non-autistic people out there) might have no qualms about openly taking their frustration out on the spectrum person, others wouldn’t resort to that, at least not openly.

It’s tough to talk about deeper issues; on the other hand, it’s much easier to talk about surface subjects.

So, for the frustrated non-autistic person, especially those who may not realize their frustration or don’t want to admit it, the “special interest” may become the scapegoat.

The “special interest” becomes the topic.  In my (theoretical general) example, the resentment toward the autistic person or the fact that they’re autistic would be the deeper, more hidden, less comfortable issue.

It’s much more comfortable (for the non-autistic person) to say (often in exasperation), “why are you so interested in trains??” or “you’re always on the computer; online isn’t the same as face-to-face, you know.  Get outside and make some ‘real’ friends” than it is to say, “I don’t understand you and I wish you showed me you love me in the ‘usual’ ways” or “you’re different and nobody can change that, and I’m concerned about the attention (I think) you draw when you don’t act the same as everyone else, and I’m afraid people will think we’re inferior, which I don’t want because I’m insecure and I care too much about what strangers think”.

Or,

“I formed a set of expectations for you based on society’s rule book and playbook, and if you diverge from your pre-destined path, then society won’t respect you, nor will they respect me…and I care too much about what I think they think.”

“I made plans for your life for you, out-of-line and prematurely, and I expect you to live up to my expectations, even though you didn’t have a hand or a say in making them, but rather than admit that I depend on you to live out the elements of my own childhood that I didn’t get to live, I’m going to stop you from doing the things that remind me you’re different.”

It’s a lot easier to blame the Asperger’s/autistic person outright, and it’s easier yet to blame the objects or topics of interest, than it is to expose and admit to one’s own insecurity and superficiality, even to oneself.

And of course, once the “special interest” has been identified as an acceptable target of the frustration, any time the Asperger’s/autistic person is observed engaging in it or referencing it in any way, this triggers the cascade of feelings in the non-autistic person with the unresolved inner issues.

So the “special interest” must be stopped, or heavily curtailed.  Wouldn’t want the neighbors to see Jaime building too many trains in the garage instead of going to school to become a doctor or lawyer, after all, now, would we?

There’s one (serious) problem with that…

The world, to an autistic person, is likely an overwhelming one.  It’s a difficult one.  It’s a confusing and chaotic one.  It’s often even a painful one.

This can cause the autistic person to experience stress, anxiety, confusion, despair, depression, even hopelessness.  I’ve felt the whole range of these myself, and I hesitate to say that it’s absolutely universal, but I know for a fact that it’s common among Asperger’s/autistic people.

I describe my own experience of interacting with the world as a constant low-level stress-buzzing that jars and irritates my nervous system.  I am often repeatedly bombarded with reminders that I’m odd, weird, different, and sometimes inadequate.  I have a choice between these feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, or feelings of isolation and alienation.  The choice is not pretty, and it must be made moment by moment.

There is, however, a third–and much more palatable–option.

The area of intense focus, on the other hand, is one of the few ways in which an escape or space of calm can be found.  I could describe it as a sense of relief, a safe and quiet space–created by me–for my brain, a pressure release valve.  As long as I am engaged in my “special interest”, this makes being alone much more enjoyable, which makes the decision outlined above much clearer and my solution more pleasant.  This translates to a much more fulfilling life.

To deny me access to that interest is to remove my pressure release valve, my main go-to strategy for relieving stress, and demolishes my inner sanctuary, my brain’s calm and happy place.

The irritating “buzzing” would begin to build up in my system again, quickly and disastrously.

If denying me access to my interest is indeed for my own good, because it would harm me or someone else, then that’s one thing: alternatives would assuredly have to be found, or at the very least, modifications would probably have to be made.  A special interest in fire or tornadoes, for example, would have to be curtailed or altered; substitutions would probably have to be found.  Or if I’m running myself or someone else into debt because I like to collect diamonds or gold bars or something, then that can’t be allowed to continue as-is, either.

But if I’m simply collecting rocks or listening to (a lot of) music through headphones or browsing digital art for hours after school, then there’s no reason to ground me from the computer, especially if my homework is done and my grades are decent.

Restricting my access to my interest to 15 minutes or an hour a day is like saying, “you’re subject to intense stress from an intense world during all 18 of your waking hours, but you only get to relieve it for 15 minutes at a time because any more than that makes me feel uncomfortable about having a weird kid.”

Can we say selfish?

And of course, the medical model-based clinicians are of no help.  They don’t–and wouldn’t–understand.  How could they, when they see Asperger’s/autism as a disorder in the first place?  All they end up doing is reinforcing the neurotypical “standards” (“you need to get out more”, “you need to make more friends”, “you need to be studying more (even though your grades are fine)”, “you need to choose a career (and it had better be a respectable one”).

With (some) medical/psychological professionals and (some) caregivers in the same camp against the wants and needs of Asperger’s/autistic people, it’s no wonder depression, anxiety, PTSD, under-employment, under-achieving, etc, are so high among people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum: we (those of us to whom this has happened) never had a chance to be ourselves.  Many of us never even had a chance to find ourselves.  And we (those of us to whom this applies) certainly never knew what it felt like to be accepted and loved for who we are.

Many of us who were denied sufficient time to engage in our interest grew up stressed and depressed, and this doesn’t just go away in adulthood.  A childhood (and what is said and done to a child) writes the first chapters of their story for them.  It sets them up, for better or worse (depending on exactly what is said and done), for their adult existence.

Hence the fact that this topic qualifies as a mental health post.

Why is restriction or denial of an interest a potential form of abuse?

Because, if we look back near the top of the post, where the term “abuse” is defined as “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth”, it might be tough to see at first, but upon deeper thought, the connection becomes clearer.

If a “special interest” is needed in order for an Asperger’s/autistic person to recharge, recoup, cope, etc, with a world where the intensity is turned up too high for us to enjoy a decent quality of life, then denial of, or too tight a restriction placed on, the interest could indeed be injurious.

Before anyone protests that I’m going too far with this, simply look up the consequential symptoms that arise from excess chronic stress.  I don’t have hard numbers nearby (I do somewhere), but chronic stress leads to a huge chunk of not only chronic mental health issues, but also chronic physical health problems, including a surprising amount of chronic disease.  Examples include insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes/insulin resistance, weight gain, immune system suppression (with its accompanying frequent colds and flus), poor wound healing, upticks in allergies and even changes in the gut microbiome (“Stress-induced changes to the microbiome may in turn affect the brain and behavior.”)

So yes, given the psychological and physical effects of stress, and the well-known fact that “special interest” engagement is indeed an excellent (and sometimes the only) method of adequate stress relief for many Aspergian/autistic people, then yes, withdrawal, excessive restriction, or denial of access/adequate time with a special interest may indeed be considered a potent, even if subtle, form of abuse.

In short, I have a few summary tips for non-autistic people:

  • Think twice before removing the Asperger’s/autistic person’s stress relief strategy or limiting it to too brief a time period.
  • Consider the potentially real reason for wanting to restrict access.
  • If you truly must restrict the activity, add before subtracting (try to get them interested in another topic or a safer/cheaper/less time-consuming version; maybe see if they’ll collect high-resolution pictures of diamonds, or quartz crystals instead of real diamonds).
  • Consider the world as best you can from a spectrum person’s point of view.  Empathy can be lacking, and must be cultivated, on both sides.
  • Identify as many of the autistic person’s stressors as possible and mitigate them as much as possible, to reduce the overall stress load, so that they may not need as much time to recharge and relax with their interest.

My antihistamine is kicking in, which means I’m about to stop making sense, so I’ll quit here, while (I think) I’m ahead. 🙂


Related Posts:

The Asperger’s / Autism Spectrum and Anxiety ~ The Reality

‘Special Interest’ vs Obsession

Asperger’s / Autism and Loneliness

Because Rainbows!  A Tale of ‘Special Interests’

Asperger’s / Autism and Depression ~ From My Perspective

Asperger’s / Autism and Depression

I Don’t Have Special Needs.  I Just Have Needs.

Praising Us For Acting Neurotypical Is *Not* Asperger’s / Autism Acceptance

 

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35 Comments

  1. Adults can do some bizarre things in the name of parenting. I wonder if it is often about control. I remember my mother buying some clothes pegs (not that I asked for them) and then telling my kids they couldn’t play with them to build indoor shelters because “that isn’t what I bought them for”. I told my mother not to be ridiculous and the kids played for hours using their imagination. Seeing the situation from the kids point if hard for some people but extra important for kids on the spectrum. I’m afraid I can get really angry when people try to impose illogical rules on kids just for the sake of exerting control. So yes, I agree, it is abuse.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. So true, my friend! You express an excellent point – “for the sake of exerting control”. You’re totally right, it can get bizarre! My father could get very irrational and controlling; and the irrationality and desire to control seemed to go together, too. Imagination would have been off-limits if not for my mom, who believed wholeheartedly in letting kids be kids. It’s a good sign when kids want to use their imagination! But back in not-so-distant times, kids were thought to be little adults and made to work. Ugh. I think it would be totally cool to see a little shelter made of clothes pegs! 👏🏼👏🏼😊💓🌺

      Like

  2. So spot on about caregiver behaviors that can be considered abuse. I witnessed it so often in the health care field. Its a hard topic to address because often the client suffers because they are considered traitors for telling how they were treated.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great insights! That is one area, looking back, my mom could be both very facillitating or utterly cruel-depending entirely on whether she agreed with the special interest ( classic film and vintage accessories) or deemed it “stupid” ( my years-long interest in the Monkees). This inconsistency has led me I to very purposefully give my children room to branch out and like/pursue what they want ( as it is safe/ inexpensive).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’re so awesome!! (Have I told you that? 😉). Again I’m so sorry for what you had to go through 💐💐. I’m happy for the times when your mom was supportive, but mad at her for the times when she was harsh and cold toward you 😡💔. I’m so happy for your kids, that they have a mom like you! Bravo, my lovely!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼💪🏼💗💗

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That phrase “You need to….” is so charged with control. My reaction hearing it, even not directed at me, is “Don’t tell me what I need! How would you know?” I was never a fan of “just because” or “because I said so” and tried to have a valid reason to give for saying NO when my daughters were growing, and now with Ben. It’s good to try other things but if that doesn’t suit or spark then there’s nothing wrong with going back to what does! 👍✨💖💫💞🌟💥🌻🌴😎

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Amen!!

      The phrase “you need to…”, when said in a judgmental way, is a total trigger for me lol 😊

      Judgmental person: “you need to…”
      Me: “F**k off”

      Lol

      On the other hand, I love your parenting and grand-parenting style(s) 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼😘😘💗💜☯☮❣🐉💕🌟🌟🌟

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I wonder if people just don’t realise what a special interest is and that it’s more than just a hobby. I’ve tried to explain the feeling in my last blogpost, and I don’t know if it’s an Aspie thing, but I suspect that most people don’t get the deep emotional satisfaction and happiness a special interest brings. For them it’s just playtime which you get as a reward after you’ve done your chores or it gets withheld as a punishment. And who decides which interests are “weird”? I can feel another blogpost coming on..
    Btw, I’ve refreshed my app, so have a few ⭐️🌻🌺🌸💐🌞🐉🌵🙋🏻😘

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Omg yes! I totally agree. I think it might be an Aspie thing, yeah; it’s in the criteria, so of course some clinician observed it and thought it was “weird” 🙄😉💞

      I totally get that same satisfaction you describe, too 👍🏼😎💗

      Yes, I would totally love to read your blog post of thoughts on this! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼😁💞👍🏼🌷💝💚💙

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, it is in the criteria but as “abnormal in focus” or some such nonsense, not as “providing comfort, serenity and warm and fuzzy feelings to the person engaged with it”, which, at least where my experience is concerned, is what it should be. 😌

        Liked by 2 people

        1. You’re totally totally right 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. I think you hit on something, something that I’ve been mulling over for a while, and have actually started the notes/draft of a blog post about: the criteria are written based on observations of us by those who don’t understand us, but what’s the reasoning behind what they’re seeing? Only we can (individually, for ourselves) answer that 😊. The upcoming blog post, when it gets written lol 😉, will essentially “decode” the diagnostic criteria as I experience it, telling my version of the “why”s behind the characteristics 😁💜💙💓

          Liked by 2 people

    2. “but I suspect that most people don’t get the deep emotional satisfaction and happiness a special interest brings. For them it’s just playtime which you get as a reward after you’ve done your chores or it gets withheld as a punishment. ”

      I agree. For a majority of NT’s I think, these activities are just unimportant recreational activities. It has no other end goal besides entertainment/unwinding. It’s the reason why so many people after work plop down on the couch, and aimlessly channel surf the TV for 2 hours. Theyre not attached to anything in particular…they’re just looking for mindless stimulation. For them, they see no difference between such unstructured recreation and the “special interests” activities Aspies indulge in. They don’t understand that these “special interests” are part of our identity and our sense of self worth. They burrow in real deep into our psyche. It’s kind of like what Ray Bradbury said some thing to the extent of “Books are people…and when you read books you BECOME those people.” That’s like the level of intimacy Aspies have with their special interests.

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    3. “I’ve tried to explain the feeling in my last blogpost, and I don’t know if it’s an Aspie thing, but I suspect that most people don’t get the deep emotional satisfaction and happiness a special interest brings. For them it’s just playtime which you get as a reward after you’ve done your chores ”

      I think that’s what most NT’s mistakenly interpret it as — shameless recreation. It belongs in the same category as sitting on the couch mindlessly channel surfing for 2 hours. They don’t understand with aspies, special interests dig real deep into their psyches. They become part of their identity and self worth. It’s kind of like what Ray Bradbury said (paraphrasing here) “Books are people…and when you read them, you BECOME those people.” That’s the kind of intimacy Aspies have with their special interests I think.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Thank you. This is a subject that is really close to my heart. It really pains me to think that so many Aspies out there will have to endure this conflict growing up Unfortunately that’s still the cultural reality we live in. Authoritarian parenting especially is still in full force in many parts of the world. The very fact that such a large % of the US voted an abusive authoritarian into the White House is indicative of that. Economic insecurity due to global competition and other factors foster these kind of attitudes in parents. It’s sickening/maddening to see young parents proudly boasting about how they’re going to raise their children on a tight leash and program them for “success” and all that. The whole joke is I think that aspies, with their hyperfocus skills, are by nature already primed for success… just not in the areas that parents and the culture want them to be.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. You had me at scapegoat! 😍 I like that you mentioned that restricting the special interest was just a way to avoid deeper frustrations, because I noticed something similar with my family now that I’m diagnosed. Mom didn’t restrict my access to my special interest, but, whether she understood or not, she did use me and my autism as a scapegoat for her own, long-suppressed frustrations with my dad (a suspected autistic). I still don’t think she quite sees me as an individual separate from him. I mean, yes, we have many similarities, but it doesn’t mean she should take it out on me either.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh wow, I’m so sorry that you had to take the brunt of that; why can’t adults be adults and handle their own stuff between themselves? Ugh. 💐💞. Thank you so much for sharing your story! ❤️. I’m sure you’re not alone, dear friend 😘. She should never have done that to you 💜💙💜

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi friend! Awesome question 😊. I chose this picture I think for a few reasons. First, I think it shows a variety of concepts emanating from the person’s head 😊. Second, I think the brain looks pretty “busy”, with a lot going on inside. Third, one could say that it looks like the brain is stuffed full of thoughts and whatnot; it looks a little chaotic, like my own Aspie-brain tends to be 😉. And last, some of the items do look unclear, ambiguous, and hard to recognize, which symbolizes what I feel and think much of the time 😊. I can’t always identify and/or express everything that goes on in my own head 😉❤️. So the rest is left to one’s own imagination and interpretation. It really spoke to me for those reasons 💖

      Like

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