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“Special interests make the world go round.”–probably no one, but it’s kind of catchy, right?
If you’ve ever watched the Netflix show Atypical, you’ll know that Sam, the autistic protagonist, likes penguins. In the autismverse, there’s a particular term for Sam’s love of penguins: special interest. A special interest is like a neurotypical hobby on steroids. Tendency to fixate on small details + ability to hyperfocus on said details with remarkable intensity + cognitive stamina + tolerance for repetition = a relentless, all-encompassing, überimportant, incredibly special interest that means the world to its autistic owner.
The example with Sam and the penguins is one degree removed from the ultimate autism cliche: Asperger’s dude who is socially awkward and obsessed with trains. Atypical has been criticized by some autistics because it doesn’t add much dimension to this stereotype. A special interest can be anything, not just a category of object or animal. My own special interests have included Wales (specifically, Welsh geography…shoutout to Google Maps), baby names, writing, Spanish, French, Russian, linguistic dimensions of schizophrenia, surrealism, personality disorders, transdiagnostic modeling of psychosis, and the Titanic (ship, not movie). I’ve met other autistics who are specially-interested in chickens, rowing, Star Trek, Winnie the Pooh, autism (ha), economics, and Glee. While we may not be able to relate to the details of each interest, I think we all know the feeling of being so absorbed in our latest fascination that we lose track of time, space, and the fact that we’ve been sitting in the same position for about five hours and maybe we should get a drink of water.
In lots of ways, special interests are wonderful. They’re fun. They’re engaging. They give us meaning and purpose. We develop encyclopedic knowledge and deep understanding that can come in handy at school and work. (Temple Grandin is a classic example.) Special interests can also be a vehicle for learning other skills that come less naturally for us. My love of languages has led me to socialize, volunteer, connect with family members (my grandmother taught me French), understand the rules of etiquette in other cultures, and even (gasp!) make small talk. None of this was easy, but I managed to do it because special interests bring me a kind of joy that I don’t get anywhere else, a joy that far outweighs the discomfort and anxiety of saying hello to a stranger. Back in the good old days when I left my house, I had a habit of following people on the street who happened to be speaking my language of choice. I don’t mean this in a stalker-y way. I just love overhearing a Russian conversation, and I’m maybe possibly definitely willing to be late if it means I get to do that.
This joy isn’t limited to languages, either. I love how much I love going to the Stanford database, finding a new medical textbook on diagnostic interviewing that would probably cost $200 on Amazon, downloading it, and reading the entire thing in one sitting. I love that my fascination with Russian grammar propels me through the tedium of reviewing verb conjugations and, if all goes according to plan, will one day render me an excellent spy. I love how I can watch the same episode of Modern Family 10, 20, 30 times and still find it delightful and hilarious. The phrase “light up my life” sounds like an off-brand Hallmark card (or amateur song lyrics), but I’m going to use it anyway. When I think about the way my special interests light up my life, I feel ridiculously lucky.
Of course, there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. Maybe I can make a Russian reversal joke out of this. In capitalist America, you pursue special interest. In Soviet Union, special interest pursues you. Except the latter is exactly what’s been happening lately, and last I checked, I am not in the Soviet Union.
The tendency to fixate on small details comes with drawbacks. Up until I was 14 or 15, I could not for the life of me summarize a book or a movie, because I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. (What forest?) If one small detail of whatever I’m working on is wrong, I forget about the 99 other great details, and the whole thing seems ruined. This myopic thinking explains some of the gravity that special interests hold. They drag me in deeper and deeper. I can’t see the big picture because I have been swallowed up by this neverending fascination with a certain train route in Wales, and that fascination overtakes the big picture, so now the big picture is Wales. All I think about is Wales and all I can think about is Wales and anyone who isn’t thinking about Wales might as well be on Mars because they are there and I am here and you can see why this might start to drive a person insane.
Or let me take a more recent example, which is my special interest in the unholy marriage of post-modernism, Marxist conflict theory, and identity politics to form Woke doctrine. I got red-pilled in June, and since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking and learning about this. The sense of urgency isn’t just in my head, and commentators far more knowledgeable and intelligent than I have been sounding the alarm bells on Woke culture for a while. It’s timely, it’s relevant to everything that’s going on around me, and I’ve learned a lot, but the obsessive-compulsive quality of this interest is making me crazy. There’s the constant, itching urge to learn more and know more and do more, the tugging sensation that drags me towards the next article or video or book that might explain whatever new questions the last one has planted, the endless, crushing tide of thought sending shockwaves through my skull from the inside out.
You know when you have too many apps open on your computer, or you’re trying to load too many tabs at once, and the screen freezes and you can hear the hard drive whirring and panting as it struggles to keep up, a mechanical sort of hyperventilation? That’s what my brain is like, convulsion after convulsion so that at the end of the day I’ve read I-don’t-know-how-many thousand words and written a few thousand myself but I’m so caught off-balance by the force of it all that reality slides through my fingers. I return to myself and am seasick, stumbling. I don’t know what to believe. I’m still shuddering from the impact of the chaos, and the echoes pound all night, vibrant, unceasing.
This, I suppose, is what makes a special interest special. A normal interest doesn’t knock you off your feet or pull you in or eat you alive. It doesn’t play with the fabric of time and space, it doesn’t drown out every other stimulus, it doesn’t transmit frenetic electricity that can illuminate if you’re lucky or suffocate if you’re not. And it’s that capacity for illumination and suffocation that becomes so essential at the end of the day, when I am overwhelmed and nauseated and thoroughly disoriented by the special interest’s ever-growing might, and when it occurs to me that I will do precisely the same thing tomorrow, and then again the day after that, because remember, it is the special interest that lights me up and gives me meaning.
What to do?
I inhale deeply. I take in my surroundings, scan my body, and remind myself that I am still real.
Then I start to strategize. This is an optimization game, and I like a good game. Where is the line between illumination and suffocation? What variables affect my mental state, and how can I modify those to engineer the best result?
First, dosing must be performed carefully. Hours of research on end is a recipe for exhaustion. Second, if I want to maintain some semblance of sanity, I need to stay away from the postmodern nonsense – specifically, the writers who truly believe that there’s no such thing as objective truth. I don’t think any of these people have ever had a psychotic break. I’m not sure they understand that obliterating reality makes for interesting literally analysis and hellish everyday life. It’s like trying to inhabit a Picasso painting. I’ll stick with Marxism and identity politics for now.
Third, there’s the question of input/output. Part of what rattles me so is the fact that I’m not sure what to do with all the knowledge and information, except to ruminate. Note that there’s a difference between synthesis and rumination, the former involving creation, the latter relying on repetition. Rumination leads to dizziness and anxiety, the feeling of going in circles. If, however, I identify forms of output and establish a goal, then my thoughts will have a direction. I might avoid that drowning feeling, and there will be an element of metacognition at play as I reevaluate where I am and where I’ve been and where I want to be going. The main medium of output is writing, whether that’s here on my blog or on other platforms. I resolve to keep an open notebook and a pen nearby at all times. The more thoughts I can catch, the better.
Third, I get a sense of humor. Everything I’m learning is complicated and confusing and dark and concerning and some of it is genuinely scary, but I need it to be funny or I really will lose my mind. Thank goodness for James Lindsay and his Twitter feed:
About a week ago, I had taken all these steps and found myself far more stable in every dimension: physical, emotional, spiritual, metaphysical, semantic, etcetera. I was getting ready to write this blog post when a small miracle happened, an ironic one, perhaps. A second special interest took hold of me: my interest in teaching. The quality of this interest is a little different from what I’ve described thus far. Less feverish, more patient, persistent. Patience is deeply ingrained in any sort of good teaching. This is determination in another form, more about prolonged stamina than spontaneous strength. The objectives are far easier to identify, because I work with my students each week, and I’m always coming up with long-term goals and short-term goals and strategies to assess progress. When I gather information, I do so strategically, as I have an immediate purpose in mind. And morally speaking, this special interest is far less charged, because there isn’t a bitter social conflict at the heart of it. Teaching is an exercise in empathy and understanding. As this second special interest flooded my brain and began to soak up hours at a time, I realized that I now have the chance to perform an amazing, invisible balancing act. These two special interests complement each other perfectly. All I need to do is split my time and energy between them.
From there, things fell into place almost effortlessly. I’ve found no shortage of materials for educators online, so I end up watching ESL tutorials while I’m working out. Most of them are a bit too long, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and they might only contain a handful of useful suggestions that vary from the standard pedagogy. I end up watching four of those over the course of a workout, and by the time I’m done, I’ve come up with a supercharged 15 minutes’ worth of teaching content that packs the punch of all the videos combined – and that’s not to mention the thought that goes into reviewing the plans I have for each student, considering how whatever curriculum I’ve devised might be incorporated into their work.
Meanwhile, I continue to learn about Wokeness/Critical Social Justice in parallel. I’m writing about that here and in the Stanford Daily and potentially in other publications, too, if they’ll have me. I’m reading How to Have Impossible Conversations and practicing impossible conversations with myself. Breaking out of the hypermilitant “you’re either with us or against us” Woke mindset has allowed me to hear a much broader range of ideas, too. I can appreciate the value of conservatism despite not being a conservative, consider the important points gender-critical feminists are making, and entertain the notion that the Republican Party is not a fundamentally evil entity. (No comment on certain members, though.)
It may be that in the future, these two special interests merge, and then I’ll definitely have to do another blog post, because heaven only knows what happens then. Right now, I’m content with having my work balanced equally between the two, attenuating my irritation regarding censorship with a boring YouTube video on writing good paragraphs, then heading to Quillette for one more article about Marxism before reviewing the lesson slides that I’ll teach on Saturday.
Light is a powerful force with no moral weight of its own. The question is what you do with that light, how you harness the fire. Enough is burning in the world already. That’s why I’m choosing creation.