Thursday, November 11, 2010

Are special interests another form of autistic inertia?

You've probably heard about special interests if you've a passing interest in autism. Maybe you've heard them called by their less flattering but more accurate term - obsessions.

Obsessions are why an autistic kid becomes an expert on dinosaurs or ancient Egypt or Thomas the Tank Engine, why as adults we can happily eschew food and sleep to pursue some great and wonderful new interest, why when we start talking it's sometimes hard to get us to stop.

It's generally fun and generally harmless. But not always - it can get in the way of work or self-care, and while my own obsessions are innocent and healthy (that's my story, and I'm sticking to it) not everyone's neccessarily are. I remember one chap who had a rather unpleasant special interest - I'll spare you the details - but it got him banned from a large ASD support forum for posting images he presumably thought were fascinating, but were actually highly offensive and somewhat distressing.

It's hard to admit, but it's like an addiction. You NEED to engage in your special interest the way a drug user needs their next hit. It's more than just something one does for fun, however much fun it might actually be to do it.

In the past I've tended to think about special interests as being separate from the general mismash of autism's other neurological annoyances.  But the more I think about it, the more I think there could be a connection, to inertia in particular.

Autistic inertia is why I find it so hard to get started on a new task or a shift of focus, even if it's a positive change like leaving work to go home for the weekend. Once you're in a particular mindset or engaged in a particular task, you're rolling. And it's hard to stop rolling. It's why I forget to eat, then when I start eating don't stop until the bowl's empty, no matter how much food was in it.

However, I've recently realised there's actually a very strong link between inertia, what I've previously thought of as special interests, and having an annoying damn song stuck in my head.

Ever feel like you're just going round in circles?
I tend to get songs stuck really, really badly. It's a level entirely beyond the usual song-stuck-in-your-head thing, it genuinely takes over my thinking and becomes annoying to the point of incapacitation.  And, because I tend to end up singing the wretched thing out loud, also annoying for those around me. Sorry.

This, I now realise, is exactly what my special interests do. My special interests tend to be TV shows, books, movies, that sort of thing, and basically I get a storyline - either one from the show or one based on the show that my brain's come up with itself - stuck in my head and find myself repeating a scene or sentence or scenario over and over and over a-bloody-gain. My actual interest in the show is really to nourish my mental repeat loop.

This goes on all the time. Literally. I've always got at least three trains of thought going simultaneously:

  • The mechanics or where I am and what I'm doing, such as the subject matter of the conversation I'm having.
  • Trying to stay aware of what's going on socially. Am I boring someone? What did that comment or look mean? Does my tone and body language say what I'm trying to say?
  •  Meanwhile, James and Jeremy have just fallen through the ice and I'm trying to ignore it.

This is actually really hard to write about. I'm quite aware I sound thoroughly, clinically, completely insane. I'm not. I'm just trying to explain a phenomenon which lacks a proper terminology, because it affects so few people and those it does affect often can't explain it.

But, what it boils down it is my brain's stuck in a loop.


The whole special interest thing is another form of inertia.

Today someone mentioned my song-repeating thing was like a verbal tic, and temded to pop up when I was flustered, or when there was something complicated socially going on, like an awkward, loaded silence in a staff meeting, and I was obviously having trouble processing what was going on.

I'm not sure what this means.

Perhaps my brain's slipping back into the comfortable, established train of repetitive thought when it's faced with something it can't handle.  Or maybe when it's under pressure trying to handle something hard, my self control slips and the tic comes out.

I hadn't noticed, and am still not sure what's going on. This disappoints but does not surprise me, since my self-awareness is pretty ropey. It's much better than it was pre-diagnosis, when I genuinely didn't have a clue, but it's still not good.


  1. Had not thought of my special interests as a form of inertia! It actually makes a lot of sense, head music fits the same criteria as well. Many thanks for that thought, now I have to figure out how that can help me get stuff done.

  2. Ah, if I ever figure that out, it's a subject for another post. :)