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To All the Special Interests I’ve “Loved” Before: Part I – An Introduction

by on August 16, 2020

Introduction: The other day I noticed someone wearing a Willie Nelson T-shirt.  While I’ve never really listened to his music, the shirt reminded me of his duet sung with Julio Iglesias called, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”  I decided to read the lyrics since it isn’t a song I know well.  Readers are invited to search the lyrics online as I did. Although it’s written to previous romantic and sexual partners, in some aspects the overall meaning feels relatable here.

And so the song inspired the title for a series about special interests.  I decided to place “loved” in quotation marks because I view love as a bewildering notion that can easily be confused with other feelings, if it exists at all.  Last Sunday I wrote a poem called “into the void.” The poem is mostly about “love” and a wonderful Special Interest person without mentioning the word love or who the person is.  The poem outlines several years of my undiagnosed, autistic mind sometimes mistaking other, more complex challenges for being “in love.”  While I do have the capacity to love (care for) others, how does caring for someone differentiate from being “in love,” and further yet, how do those feelings differentiate when the so-called love “target” is also an all-consuming special interest?  I still have much to learn about myself and how my thoughts operate, especially when a special interest is another human being, friend, and support system. 

Like the girls in the song, special interests have helped me in ways even I may never know beginning with early childhood.  Although I don’t agree we “owe” others for helping us as the songwriter seemed to feel, I’m grateful nonetheless.  This especially applies to the individual in the poem whose support has been unfailing even as I continued to lose “friend” after friend.  I had no idea why so many people have ghosted me over several decades, vanishing without a reason and never heard from again.  This is quite common for people with ASD, but knowing that still doesn’t explain what I did wrong, especially when I assumed the friendships were going well.  There are things in the past I can’t change, but I do feel it is cruel to disengage without explanation.  Perhaps they were only trying to spare my feelings, but sudden abandonment is overwhelmingly confusing and hurtful. 

The poem I wrote describes feelings of discontent, anxiety, sadness, emptiness, loneliness, frustration.  It’s also about caring, concern, support, contentment, self-awareness, loyalty, and true joy.  The latter were always there; the former need not have been had I known myself better and sooner.  Feelings of anxiety, confusion and sadness are typically unrelated to special interests.  That is, unless the individual is denied their interest for various reasons not their own.  Being denied an interest or having limitations posed could possibly unravel some people with ASD, since special interests are remarkable coping mechanisms. 

However, when my “favorite Special Interest” would be inaccessible or out-of-reach for various reasons, I would feel sad, bored and anxious. For years I thought this was mostly adult separation anxiety disorder, something at least one therapist decided I experience. But even so, the anxious thoughts when we were out-of-contact seemed to go deeper than separation anxiety.

The feelings expressed in my poem are entirely the opposite of what the poem’s subject, a human friend and special interest, has actually provided.  My special interests, including the person about whom I wrote, have been critical to my overall survival, social development, and well-being.  They provide peaceful, joyful feelings which in turn reduce anxiety and help me cope with life.  They’re not obsessions because thoughts about them aren’t normally upsetting or intrusive; in fact, when I’m stressed or anxious I willfully think and talk about them.  

Each special interest has alleviated boredom, and the majority have been fascinating and exciting subjects.  They can make a sometimes excruciatingly challenging existence in the outside world so much more fun.  There have been a few exceptions, such as the current deadly pandemic in which we find ourselves.  I use that as an example, because it seems I have no ability to stop something (like covid19)  from becoming a special interest even when there is little joy involved.  While this is a rare set of circumstances, perhaps my brain gave birth to a new interest in the form of the very thing that might have caused anxiety.  I’m currently a full-time essential worker exposed to hundreds of people per shift.  It’s a relief to discover avid research into a deadly virus has provided a coping mechanism when dealing with concerns about the virus itself.  

When I find myself in the throes of a new special interest, I soon become something of an expert into the topic.  This is the case for many people with ASD and their special interests.  When I discuss them in social situations with neurotypical people, I experience a level of confidence that I wouldn’t normally.  My special interests increase self-esteem and provide a basis for conversation. 

Today I’m learning to limit consumption of things I cannot control (such as what becomes a new special interest), so they in turn do not control me.  I finally realize repeatedly discussing a special interest can bore and annoy others, and in some cases even cause discomfort if it’s a topic others find worrisome.  I never want my challenges with ASD to upset people, even though I now realize they have.  Perhaps this is just one reason I’ve been ghosted so many times.  C’est la vie.  I’m learning to look for social cues when someone is no longer interested in a topic, such as when they begin to walk away.  

In the undiagnosed adult, it makes sense there might be an inability to understand why such overwhelming feelings are there or how they behave in the mind.  I had no idea why certain fixations, so often mistakenly described by others as “obsessions,” even existed.  In the autistic child, I imagine it’s doubtful much of that matters up to a certain age.  It is generally a socially acceptable practice for most young children to fixate wholly on one specific interest, such as dinosaurs, trains, or horses, sometimes to the exclusion of anything else.  Sometimes I wish I could be Little Dana again for that reason and others besides.  It is also wrong to assume a favorite hobby or passionate interest means a child is on the Spectrum.  All-consuming, marked interests are only one indication, although in my own experience these interests, significantly in one person, helped me realize who I am. 

Some autistic children and adults do fixate on just one thing, but even that can be essential for navigating the world around them.  The world can sometimes be socially confusing, overstimulating, and perceived differently to me than it is to my peers.  I feel things so intensely that I’ve been called extremely passionate and overly dramatic by those who know me.  An unexpected, public “collision” with a treasured interest can even, but rarely cause me embarrassment afterward.  I’ve been known to yell, “NASA!” or “SPIDER-MAN!” at people of all ages who have logos on their shirts.  The burst of joy at certain ones, especially those developed during my childhood, is so intense that I forget myself. 

It was in 2019 that I discovered I’m autistic.  When adults, significantly women make this discovery it is quite often on their own.  The result is typically life-changing in ways so beneficial I feel this deserves a future essay of its own.  There are many moments I burst into laughter, thinking, “It’s no WONDER….!”  Over four decades of confusing behaviors and awkward social situations are finally beginning to make sense. 

Nearly a year and a half later after my diagnosis, I’m a completely different person.  So different I’m uncertain those who haven’t seen me in some time would fully recognize the person they once knew.  Even I still don’t quite recognize my new, improved self. After so many years unwittingly spent trying to exist as neurotypical, I finally get to be me and discover who I am as a whole person.  Getting to be me includes enjoying my special interests and reminding others these are not obsessions, although they can certainly appear that way.  Until recently, some did even to me.

I’m a curiously resilient person, resilient mostly because I’m autistic.  I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of trauma since conception.  Without the special abilities, interests, and gifts ASD has provided for me, I doubt I would be here today.  The extremely traumatic events as well as a lifetime of abuse, neglect, abandonment, harassment, and mental health challenges, should probably have created a statistic by now.  Yet here I am. 

As this first installment comes to a close, I have to wonder, can an autistic person become their own special interest, especially if they didn’t fully know themselves for several decades?  ASD has definitely become a new SI since my diagnosis. So have my new treasured, indoor plants.  I find myself wanting to discuss them all the time with anyone who will listen, and sometimes realize I’m doing so whether I think they want to or not.  We all must learn from our own foibles, and I’m learning from mine.  

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11 Comments
  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Interesting-thanks for sharing…

    Ray Z. Rivers 445 Mountsberg Rd., Campbellville ON L0P 1B0 Home and Mobile – 905-659-2069 rayzrivers@gmail.com

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  2. Absolutely fascinating. And, it’s written with the insights and precision I’ve seen you exercise so many times before. I think anyone who yields to the common temptation to apply judgments of “right” and “wrong” to this piece is completely missing the point; You are not merely unfolding self discovery, you are blossoming as self discovered. You have, and are developing further, the resilience and strength to continue your journey despite the failings of others who cannot see it through their own biases and misconceptions.

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    • Dana permalink

      Thank you, Marco! I find this an incredibly fascinating topic, especially the idea of a human being one knows becoming and forever remaining a special interest.

      SIs, just like friends, can come and go. But they’re forever embedded in the mind in some capacity

      This is an area explored seemingly very little. And because so many women my age are either misdiagnosed/undiagnosed, I think this profound knowledge has the potential to help others. Thus, I feel compelled to share it even though I still might find it slightly embarrassing at times.

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  3. “Neurotypical”; I have a new word. I have an autistic grandchild, and have been looking for years for a word to replace “normal”, which has always seemed a slightly condescending (although not meant that way) way of making the comparison between her behaviors and those of others.

    Autumn was born with a chromosomal disorder which made her initially look, and then develop, differently. At about two years old, she was tested and found to be autistic. While we still didn’t know what to expect for her future, her mother had found within the diagnosis an anchor for her emotions, and a rope with which to hold onto hope. The same held true for my niece’s daughter, who was diagnosed in her teen years; it explained so much of her social awkwardness and seeming disability when dealing with others. (She once, while still in elementary school, told her teacher, “You annoy me.” LOL). I was myself, as a child, too shy to “say boo to a ghost”, and have sometimes wondered about myself since learning that autism does not always mean the profound version which was all we knew about years ago. Like you, it would certainly explain so much.

    I enjoyed your poem, although I will admit to being slightly uncomfortable when reading and later thinking about it. Perhaps it is because those emotions were all too familiar. We are much alike, not twins, but certainly sisters in the grand scheme of things. Keep writing, Dana, there is much to learn within your new found wisdom. Rose

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    • danarenee71 permalink

      Hello Rose, thank you for sharing your experiences with neurodiversity.

      I’m not sure how old Autumn is, and every autistic child and adult is so different it might be difficult to offer any suggestions. But as a child, adolescent, and now adult, I experienced meltdowns I should probably write about one day. Those can be one of the biggest challenges for parents, because the public views them as “tantrums” which they indeed are not! For me, they are founded in sensory overload and complete frustration. Sensory overload takes its toll. I’m not a fan of the movie Rain Man because it got so much wrong, but there is an airport scene where Raymond melts down because of auditory overload and fear of flying. I can relate to the meltdown, although mine don’t present quite like that. As a child I used to quietly go somewhere no one could see me, and have my meltdowns in private. Perhaps I was punished by someone who thought they were only tantrums; I can’t remember though.

      Your niece’s daughter cracked me up! (“You annoy me” to her teacher). Autistic people have a directness and honesty that is often unique to us. Being blunt is never intended as being mean on my part; I say things that others would probably “sugar coat.” For instance, some months ago a customer called from outside my store to pick up an online order (curbside pickup). I was having trouble finding the item and told the customer, “I can never find anything in this mess behind the counter.” I was merely stating a fact, and saw nothing wrong in doing so! Any customer walking in would see that same mess. But later my manager said, “You might want to be a bit more gentle with the store next time, and not discuss “messes” and not being able to find things with customers.” I do this over and over again and have all my life. Sometimes when I’m talking to customers one of my co-workers will loudly say, “DANA!”

      I usually innocently say, “What??” because I typically don’t know what I might have said that was perceived as “wrong” or too honest. I’ve been accused of being rude or bitchy more times than I can count, when I was actually being kinder than I wanted to. I was simply being honest.

      I would venture countless women your age have gone undiagnosed, even though I’m not quite sure how old you are and I’m not attempting to diagnose you. Hans Asperger didn’t think women and girls could even BE autistic, so misogyny was and still is rampant. Thankfully things are changing. Girls and women are so adept at masking, mimicking, and camouflaging who they are to fit in socially; we have to in order to survive. But all of that takes its toll. I never really had many female friends because as I have said for many years, “Women are these mysterious creatures I do not understand.” Now I realize WHY they were so mysterious; they can be extremely complex and I’m autistic!

      I’m glad you read my poem. It was something I wanted to write about for almost ten years, but I didn’t think it would be a poem. I actually wrote it in a very good place the other day, but it did describe years of pain and confusion about my own feelings. Society seems to want us to deem intense feelings toward others as being “in love,” when those feelings could really be other things. In my case, the person is absolutely my #1 special interest of all time (Benjamin Franklin is second), but I also deeply care about them. You can imagine the confusion, and the relief now that it’s cleared up!

      Well, I’ve gone on more than I thought I would. Please feel free to write privately as well, but thank you for responding here, too. I love hearing your insight and you are such an incredibly gifted writer and human being. I’m glad to call you my friend.

      Dana

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  4. Steve permalink

    Glad you’re navigating your way to better days, Dana. Many of the things you bring up sound very familiar to our own situation with our son. He is very interested in making animation but is obviously experiencing a creative block/fear of failure. I have no problem revisiting subjects he loves as long as there is some nuance to the conversation. The quarantine has not helped though and when he is repeating a conversation verbatim for the eleventh time in a day I will struggle to approach it without seeming exasperated (which I know doesn’t help him). Ultimately, all I can do is keep trying to be supportive and think outside my usual box of solutions. Thanks for being a reminder to keep trying.

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    • danarenee71 permalink

      Steve, thanks for responding. That’s wonderful he’s interested in animation. Autistic special interests absolutely can and do turn into careers for people. There are companies like Microsoft that not only recruit autistic candidates, but also mentor them so they can manage socially. If you already know these things I apologize; I’m only now learning but it’s all very exciting!

      If I had any child seriously interested in something, I might gently steer them into that direction as a potential career, or if they were unable to work, at least a creative endeavor. It has nothing to do with “living vicariously” through them. My son developed a passion for astronomy and space exploration at a young age possibly due to my own interest in them. NASA has been one of my special interests for as long as I can recall, so we watched the NASA channel a lot! He’s now an aerospace engineer, but I’m not certain he’d be where he is today without my gentle direction. He had opportunities I never knew because of my upbringing, and I guided him along the way so he wouldn’t have to suffer financially as I always have. I’m very fortunate I have children able to work and support themselves financially. I’ve no clue what I would have done if they or I did not have that ability.

      Last Spring I happened to discover the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang. I was immediately “obsessed” and stayed awake an entire night researching him and his platform. My ASD diagnosis and becoming a campaign volunteer occurred almost simultaneously, and I soon found out Andrew has an autistic son. I was able to connect with other campaign supporters with ASD. My time as a volunteer was several months of bliss even though I was unemployed and at times virtually starving from food scarcity. But having that new special interest was so all-consuming there were times I barely cared. And I talked about him with anyone and everyone. All day long and sometimes late into the night – for months on end! Volunteering exacerbated the special interest, but I didn’t initially realize that.

      My 25 year old daughter became understandably so irritated she forbade me from mentioning his name in her presence. It’s not her fault and she did nothing wrong. She and I spend a lot of time together and more than anyone, she has dealt with my special interests over the years. They can become so hyper-focused I discuss little else, and I’m quite adept at pulling them into any conversation. I find my moment and hone in whether or not anyone wants to listen. Since I’ve lived with undue stress most of my life, I absolutely feel the interests are part of the reason I still exist today. But for those who know me intimately, I’m now well aware that I’ve been seriously annoying to others at times.

      Discussing my special interests calms me and brings me joy. It’s also a repetitive behavior, so it’s an autistic double whammy!

      Today I realize why Andrew Yang might have become such a whirlwind special interest that I drove my own daughter over the edge. I was under a horrendous amount of stress, having been terminated in March 2019 from five months at a really difficult job. I had just found out I was autistic and knew virtually nothing about the disorder and my completely new identity. I was at risk for losing my housing, and I rarely had enough to eat. I actually ate condiments at one point because that’s all there was; I had gone a full 48 hours without a bite to eat.

      So having a new special interest virtually fueled me, and part of that was feeling so full of promise for the entire country. But I also lived the special interest to the exclusion of a dedicated search for paid work, unfortunately. Part of that was discouragement over my sea of “failed” jobs, and the other part was being so consumed with the campaign on an autistic level.

      As for your son, I wonder if there has been an increase in his stress level due to all the changes we all have been forced to undergo this year? I actually wouldn’t doubt it. I’m reading stories in the news almost daily regarding how difficult this pandemic has been for people of all ages on the Spectrum. Even just the sensory issues from wearing a mask can be more challenging for us. Talking about his special interest/s might help relieve his stress and probably makes him happy.

      Sometimes my special interest conversation is also just “self-talk.” Perhaps that’s a bit of what your son is doing. I do a lot of that, probably more so now because today I fully permit myself to do whatever comes naturally. At times I don’t even recognize who I am. My daughter now has a running joke/line, “Are you talking to me?” because much of the time I’m not; I’m talking to myself. My parents nicknamed me Motor Mouth in my early childhood. Sometimes I think, what a cruel thing to do, but they didn’t know I was autistic. I think I got on my teachers nerves, too, judging from my elementary school report cards.

      As for my daughter, I’ve now told her to simply tune me out, and that if I have anything critical she needs to hear, I’ll certainly let her know. We’re now able to hang out without a fight over my non-stop special interest talk. And yes, we’ve had some pretty terrible arguments because before my diagnosis I couldn’t understand what I was doing “wrong.”

      She’s been wonderful in her support of me now that we finally know what was going on all along. So perhaps you can “listen” to your son’s repeated discussions without actually having to respond. I don’t want to speak for him because as we know, the Spectrum is so broad and autistic people are all so beautifully unique! But now that I know what a special interest is, I no longer have to feel personally hurt when others don’t care about it.

      I think headphones are a must for anyone co-existing with someone with ASD. Looking back, my children and I spent a lot of time in the living room together when I was a single parent, but we all had ear buds or headphones. Screen time together in the same room can prevent a lot of annoyances, even wireless headphones for the T.V. I think there’s nothing wrong with it. Headphones say, “I need my quiet/personal time even though we’re sharing the room.” I now live with a house mate for the first time in my life. Quite often I’ll walk into the kitchen with headphones on even though I’m not listening to anything. She’s autistic too, and we both talk to ourselves a lot. But when I have headphones on, it’s my gentle statement that I’m not in the mood for socializing, or even hearing another human voice.

      For many years my children and I also text messaged one another while in the same house and even from the same room. When my daughter was in high school she nicknamed the practice “separate togetherness.” I don’t know how communicative your son is about anything other than his special interests, but perhaps you can develop some strategies for diffusing your own irritation, especially during such a challenging time. There is certainly nothing wrong with feeling annoyed at the people we live with, but I hope you can find ways to manage it.

      Thanks again for reading and sharing, Steve!

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      • Steve permalink

        I don’t doubt many of your assessments are right.

        We have been nurturing his love of animation for some time. I learned and then taught him an approach to stop motion when he showed a desire to learn. We’ve encouraged him to enter film festivals and I started taking him to meetings of professionally minded animators. This last step led to a very generous offer for him to attend a stop motion set and for me to help contribute to a group that focused on integrating people with autism into animation. Sadly, those plans were another casualty of the pandemic.

        In his case, the repeated conversation functions as personal reassurance AND he expects reciprocation. He has a separate way of talking to himself for calming. I’ve discussed many aspects of his concerns with him. Made certain he doesn’t feel like we expect him to become an animator, let him know self doubt is natural and that growth comes through making and learning from mistakes.

        He is nearly my height (6’ 3”), nearing the end of high school and I think the reality that he is rapidly approaching the end of childhood is making him more than a bit nervous as he still leans toward a much younger maturity level than his age and size would indicate.
        We are working on gently working him toward maturity and, hopefully, being a well rounded adult. He is very anchored to me and, while I want to be supportive as much as possible, I want him to function well after I’m gone. I always try to assess daily how I did with him, celebrate the wins and rethink the missteps. Hearing adult perspectives from autistic individuals helps me. Thanks for that.

        Also, I too am not a fan of Rainman. It was the reference point given to us when he was diagnosed as a toddler. The idea of your child having to be institutionalized is not a good start on this journey. A much better film reference is the HBO Temple Grandin film.

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        • danarenee71 permalink

          Hi Steve; thank you for sharing so much. Your son is so fortunate to have the care, interest, and dedication from you that he does. My own parents refuse even to believe I’m autistic. In fact, most people I initially told completely denied it. That actually generated a period of suicidal ideation last year after my diagnosis, because being autistic is who I am and my entire identity. It’s as though they were attempting to erase me altogether. But I won’t be erased, and I won’t be silenced.

          I really hope next year when new cases are (hopefully) decreasing, there will be creative opportunities for your son and so many others. The end of high school is such a major life change, and as we know change can be even that more difficult for anyone with ASD. I also hope he can find friends with whom he can be as immature as he wants to be in appropriate settings – at least as it applies to having fun and being exactly himself in the moment.

          Certainly being independent requires growth and maturity, and I’ve been forced to be independent all my life. I was an autistic latchkey kid with an early childhood penchant for eloping (wandering off in my own little world). I’m fortunate to be alive. And thankfully I had swim lessons from an early age, because drowning while eloping is a major cause of death in children with ASD. I adored exploring nature completely alone for as long as I can recall, including creeks, ponds, and other bodies of water.

          Today I’m probably what others would call immature in some areas, so immature that few are able to guess my actual age. I’m not really a fan of age as it applies to numbers, but I suppose it’s an aspect of our society we’re expected to discuss. I’ve been known to shriek joyfully like a child at anything I find delightful, such as objects in miniature form, non-human animals, and plants. Sometimes I can’t help myself, but without question my behaviors can raise eyebrows when they’re around people who don’t know me.

          I rarely find anything in common with people my age (I’m 48) and have more meaningful conversations with non-human animals, plants, children, millennials, and those much older than I am. I’ve discovered this is fairly common in autistic adults. I also have deeply connected my entire life with others who are differently-abled, especially others on the Spectrum. What’s odd is that I’ve typically been able to detect when someone is autistic, especially when they’re being themselves and not camouflaging their traits. Yet I never saw it in myself because my mimicry was so deep. I also hope your son has neurodiverse friends. I don’t really have any but would eventually like to meet others around my age, especially women.

          The Temple Grandin movie was really good, but I do wish for better representation. It seems to be developing, such as shows like Love on the Spectrum. Even that isn’t the greatest or most accurate depiction of people with ASD. And while I do think Temple Grandin has done some incredibly important things, she is also quite opinionated and even wrong in some aspects. But I do let her have her opinions since she is autistic and thus might have trouble being open to different perspectives, even those of her peers with ASD. She probably doesn’t realize just how much she is speaking for others.

          Thanks again, Steve.

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          • danarenee71 permalink

            Correction: I’m 49. Probably should proof-read better before I comment, but I also rarely remember or even care how old I am! 🙂

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