Despite the intensity of my past special interests, I’d never given them a second thought and assumed many people had the same experiences.
I’m autistic and now totally see these deep dives as part of my neurodivergent way of thinking.
I had a lot of fun with the special interests I had during college.
But only in middle age did I begin realizing that I’m autistic – leading to an assessment and a formal diagnosis.
One of my abnormally intense interests during college was that of facial plastic surgery.
I don’t mean for myself. This hyperfixation is NOT to be equated with the “addiction” or “obsession” that some people have with plastic surgery on their own faces – to the point where they look like felines or plastic dolls.
Furthermore, my fixation was limited to the correction of congenital facial deformities and of disfigurements sustained in vehicular crashes.
There was no Internet during this time, so I gained my information from books I’d read at 1) my college’s science library, and 2) the library at the medical school where one of my sisters attended while I stayed with her for three weeks.
While other college-age women were doing what college-age women normally do in their spare time, I was sitting on a hard stool in an obscure part of the libraries studying pictures of people with malformed faces from some craniofacial anomaly, or, shattered faces from having gone through a windshield at high speed. I couldn’t get enough of this.
I even created a comic strip – and it clearly reflected my obsession.
See below! The artwork is mine, and the captions are mine, all original.
During college I also had a big one going with schizophrenia, mental patients and mental hospitals.
See the comic strip below: my original creations again.
It had never dawned on me that these interests would one day have a name that would become very well-known throughout the autistic community: special interests.
It had never occurred to me that my intrigue with these and other topics was the result of my brain being wired differently.
Instead, any minor thoughts that I had ever given to why I’d get so caught up in certain things was attributed to my intelligence, interest in the human body, and just simply being “a person of many interests.”
Yes, I had always been fully aware that my interests didn’t mirror those of my peers.
At around age 12, I was reading the nonfiction book, “Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman,” by D.S. Halacy, Jr., while my female peers were reading the magazine Tiger beat. (Yes, the “beat” is lower case.)
While female classmates were obsessed with Peter Frampton and Barry Manilow, I was fixating on how the water would get a big red stain while someone was getting attacked by a shark.
During college I was neglecting my coursework to read up on subjecting chickens to heavy gravity by spinning them around in a centrifuge.
Chronic acceleration had me in its grip. This is the subjection of animals to gee forces exceeding one earth gravity to study physiological changes (adaptations) in those animals.
What if this were applied to HUMANS?! Don’t get me started; I’m still almost in special interest territory with this one!
I knew I had exams to study for and art projects to complete, yet was in the science portion of the university’s library reading up on chronic acceleration. Yep, sounds like an autistic special interest to me.
I’m very tempted to assume that the degree to which an undiagnosed Autistic (who has no idea they’re autistic) recognizes an abnormality in their hyperfixation, is directly proportional to the negative feedback they get about it from family members and friends.
Nobody knew about my intense interest in heavy gravity, but my medical student sister certainly knew about the plastic surgery and mental patients ones.
One time when I showed her a comic strip about mental patients (forgive me, any mental health advocates who might be seeing this as insensitivity on my part), she said, “One day God’s going to punish you for making fun of them.”
She was also critical of my huge obsession with sharks and the movie “Jaws,” as well as my fixation on the 1970s TV series, “The Incredible Hulk.” She was an awful sister, if you already haven’t figured that out.
I wasn’t making fun of mental patients. I created stories about them because I was INTERESTED IN THEM and wanted to MEET SOME!
In fact, because of this special interest, I was a volunteer at a state mental hospital the summer preceding my senior year of college and the summer after graduation – and I enjoyed mingling with the patients!
I even imagined having a schizophrenic boyfriend, and over time in my adulthood, concluded that if there were a man out there who was potentially my soulmate, he would surely be schizophrenic — because I was just “too unusual” to ever have a “normal” boyfriend.
I was just so utterly intrigued by how the schizophrenic mind worked! My sister had me pegged 100 percent WRONG.
- I had gotten negative feedback from my sister about the plastic surgery, mental patients and sharks.
- I had gotten even more criticism about the sharks from my mother.
- In junior high a few girls had poked fun at the shark obsession.
Despite this negative feedback, I STILL had not thought of my interests as a sign of any kind of abnormality or atypical thinking.
Back then, the term “neurodivergent” had not yet been coined. But even then, I just never thought of my special interests as a sign of something different about the way my brain worked.
Instead, the unfavorable feedback, as I perceived it, was much more a reflection of my critics than about how my brain worked!
Years later I had become hyperfixated on how people could be so blind to the inefficiency of holding onto a treadmill.
I really went off with this one — yet attributed this “pet peeve” to my lifelong passion for physical fitness.
But since beginning my Autism Spectrum Disorder journey, I now realize that all of these were classic examples of special interests in autism.
This includes my having spent huge amounts of time seeking out every YouTube video of people having seizures after head trauma such as from boxing and skateboarding accidents.
I’d watch the same video over and over, over and over and over and over and over and over…
Can’t say it enough: I’d never thought anything was “wrong” with me when I went down these rabbit holes.
I simply thought this is what inquiring, intelligent, analytical minds like to do when they discover something new.
I never thought anything was diagnosable about me, let alone autistic, when I became transfixed by wood chipper deaths after hearing news about a local tree trimmer who got ground up by a wood chipper.
Man, I really took THAT one to town!
Then one day I began reading articles written by autistic people because they kept popping up in my feed for a content site that I’d been writing for.
I soon realized that autism had been under my nose all my life – sitting right there in plain sight – and yet somehow, someway, escaping my consciousness.
I had felt different since childhood, always. Always. But, like the proverbial woman who refuses to believe that her husband cheats on her despite reams of evidence, or like the proverbial parents who refuse to believe that their teen is doing drugs despite loads of evidence – it had never dawned on me that I could actually be autistic.
Until I began reading all that content authored by diagnosed Autistics.
It wasn’t long before I came upon this thing called special interests. I just couldn’t believe what I was reading.
This feature of autism was one of the first, that I had read about, that made me realize that I must be autistic.
All my life I’d had these “phases,” which I began realizing were signs of my mild autism.
An autistic special interest isn’t just about the intensity and devotion. It can also be about the nature of the interest.
If given the opportunity as a nine-year-old, I would’ve preferred to spend 30 minutes examining all the roller window shades in a mansion, pulling them up and down, than playing in a gigantic swimming pool full of slides and whatnot with other children.
Prior to my ASD journey, I would’ve thought how odd it was that an autistic adult could spend inordinate amounts of time watching the blades of a ceiling fan spin, entranced and mesmerized.
Yet here I was, capable of becoming entranced and mesmerized by a poofy long ponytail swinging side to side on the person in front of me walking on a treadmill.
I’ll admit, I occasionally wondered if any other woman on this planet shared this fixation.
But at the same time, my poofy ponytail obsession never made me consider that something was different about my brain.
“Unusual attachment to objects” is a trait often seen in ASD.
Evidence could be right under your nose about something without you even knowing it.