My interest in sharks was once autistic level but is currently at neurotypical grade.

As an officially diagnosed Autistic, allow me to explain the difference.

The topic of sharks is among the most popular on YouTube and Instagram, particularly YouTube.

• Many YouTubes on sharks have views in the several millions. Emma the tiger shark has racked up 3.3M views as of this posting.

• Just type in YouTube’s search field, “shark attack caught on tape,” and you’ll note that actual footage of maulings have raked in over half a million views in many cases.

• Some of the video thumbnails are sensationalized and obviously fake, yet these videos may have over a million views.

• Most of these views can’t be coming from Autistics, being that the vast majority of people are not autistic.

I’ve been watching “Sharkfest” 2023 on the National Geographic channel.

I’ve watched YouTube videos of shark attacks, including the fatal one of Vladimir Popov in June 2023.

I’ve read the comments for his attack, as well as the caught-on-tape fatal mauling of Simon Nellist.

Not too long ago I searched online for a shark tooth necklace – not a chain with one tooth, but a chain with a bunch of teeth (I found only one, and it was gaudy and didn’t look real).

I also wanted to buy shark themed leggings, but the few choices I found weren’t appealing.

These are all examples of a typical interest in sharks — an interest level shared by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of neurotypical (NT) people across the world.

But when I was 12, it was a whole new ballgame!

Autistic Special Interest in Sharks vs. Normal Level of Interest

A special interest in autism is also called a SPIN.

     SPIN: I had cut out every newspaper article about shark attacks and the movie “Jaws” during the midst of America’s sharkmania of 1975. I stashed the clippings in a shoebox, my most prized possession, eventually reaching over 200.

Regular interest: If I saw an article about sharks in a periodical, I’d have no interest in cutting it out and saving it.

     SPIN: Dreaming of one day being a shark scientist, imagining myself giving interviews about shark attacks, working in a shark lab, writing books on sharks, etc., and envying women who studied sharks for a living.

Regular interest: Wouldn’t want to do that, but that’s a cool job.

     SPIN: Wanting to get attacked by a shark to show off the scars, though I never actually swam past chest level at Coney Island Beach when I was 12.

Normal interest: Not wanting to get bitten by a shark for any reason.

     SPIN: Wanting a bunch of shark things: posters, tee shirts, stuffed sharks, a set of real shark jaws (which I actually obtained), books on sharks, any product that can be shark themed such as towels, bedspreads, pots for my plants.

©Lorra Garrick

NT Interest: The leggings and shark tooth necklace will do it for me. I’m now much more into autism themed tee shirts!

     SPIN: Wanting to talk about sharks to anyone who’ll listen. My mother got so sick of this that prior to my trip to New York – just me and my older sister, to visit my maternal aunts – my mother warned me not to talk about sharks when I was over there. Well, I did. A lot.

My sister reported this to my mother, and my mother chastised me for it. The whole family acknowledged that I had an “obsession” with sharks.

I talked about sharks so much to one of my buddies at school that somehow word got out that if I simply heard the word “shark,” I’d kind of jump. A few girls then began saying “Shark!” to observe my reaction.

Normal interest: Mentioning to other Autistics and a few NTs that I used to have a special interest in sharks, but not pursuing conversation about these sensational animals unless someone else wants to talk about them.

I do wonder, though, what it’d be like if I had a lateral line!

     SPIN: Learning quickly how to draw sharks; memorizing the scientific names of many; challenging the girls I ate lunch with in the eighth grade if they could spell carcharodon – the genus of sharks to which the great white belongs.

I got a kick out of how nobody, despite numerous attempts, could figure out how to spell this (pronounced “car-care-oh-don”).

NT Interest: I stopped drawing sharks after I graduated college, and only very rarely draw one.

I have zero interest in knowing whether or not anyone I encounter could spell carcharodon.

     SPIN: Looking in the phone book for last names that began with S-H-A-R-K. I recall finding Sharkey and Sharkozy, wishing my last name was one of those.

NT grade: No interest in this.

I was obsessed with finding out what the study of sharks was called, even asking a teacher to dig this up for me. I couldn’t let it go until I got the terminology.

The teacher finally came up with selachiiology (which actually isn’t the name of shark science).

I was also hyperfixated on how the last name of the actress, who played Chrissie Watkins, was pronounced, and wanted to learn more about her. I even became fixated on her hairstyle.

In a book on how the film was made, I spent a lot of time staring at a freeze-frame of her as she ran along the beach before she stripped off her clothes.

But years later, when I came upon an article in (I believe) “People Magazine” about what Susan Backlinie (Chrissie) was up to, I read it with only a normal level of interest.

I did eventually look her up on IMDB, but again, with only a routine, common level of interest. I certainly don’t keep thinking about her, nor do I try to start conversations about Alex Kintner’s gruesome death.

When I was 12 there was no Internet. I can tell you straight out, though, that had the World Wide Web been around during my autistic obsession with sharks – I would’ve spent gargantuan amounts of time watching shark footage – primarily attacks caught on video. Over and over and over.

And – I would’ve frozen a lot of frames and analyzed every component.

I would’ve spent tons of time reading the comments and posting comments.

Though I will still view a well-publicized attack, I’ll be done with it after maybe three or four viewings.

I would’ve preferred three hours of taking in shark YouTubes alone in my bedroom over three hours of hanging out with my peers with all-you-can-eat pizza and ice cream. Guaranteed!

I still have those clippings including single-frame comics. It’s very sentimental. But I no longer have the jaws or the three books (one on how the movie was made).

However, at some point during my drive to California for my niece’s wedding, I picked up a magazine that was all about the filming of “Jaws.”

I hope I did a good job conveying the difference between my adolescent/teen autistic level fixation on sharks and “Jaws,” and my typical one of today.

Below is an image I created using AI of “shark surfing.” I stopped creating when I arrived at the perfect image.

©Lorra Garrick

That’s an NT-grade level of interest. If it were autistic-grade, I’d be spending inordinate amounts of time playing around with creations — just for the thrill of it — rather than for my content!

There is clearly a huge difference between then and now, and it’s so easy for me to perceive that difference.

The internal experience of my hyperfixation on sharks was off the charts.

I thought about shark attacks and  “Jaws” all the time, but eventually learned to keep quiet about it.

There is only so much that an adolescent and teen – who makes money babysitting and doesn’t drive – can do to dive deep into their autistic-driven passion.

  • My great shark obsession persisted till I was around 15.
  • My indulgence in it was limited also by my mother who, for reasons I’ll never know, found my fascination aversive.
  • However, my father did call me “Shark” for a while.

There are parents today, in our more accepting climate of Autism Spectrum Disorder, who will go at great lengths to help their autistic child indulge in their special interests.

Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder. 


Top image: ©Lorra Garrick