This is a deeply personal piece and I’m writing it because I believe that it will provide a unique glimpse into the inner workings of the autistic mind. I do not for a single moment wish for this piece to be seen as an example of how all autistic minds function: it is not. Everybody’s experiences are different, a fact which plays a key part in determining how (and why) we respond to the world and cope with our struggles in the way that we do, whether we are autistic or non-autistic. That said, I have observed that a number of other autistic people employ similar coping strategies to the ones I am going to talk about here.
This, then, for all intents and purposes, is a close look at some of the special interests* that have played important roles in my development over the course of the last few years and in some cases over the period of my entire life. I chose to highlight only a few key examples in order to create a piece that can be read quite quickly. All the interests highlighted are entertainment based (i.e. books, films, music and other media), but special interests may take many forms. Some of the things I have fixated on in the past (when much younger) that are not explored in detail here include elephants, clocks, birds, prehistoric life and cartoons such as Wacky Races, to name just a few.
In each case I will be focusing less on the interest itself and more upon why it has been significant for me, and how it has helped me cope with living in a predominantly non-autistic world.
I hope that it is interesting. I have written many other pieces that give a fuller picture of the nature of my personal struggles as a whole, dealing with anxiety and depression, and so on. You may wish to look at those for further information on how the autistic mind responds to emotional upheaval.
So, without further ado, here we go:
If there is any one interest that has undeniably shaped my existence more than any other, it’s my interest in the world of Middle-earth created by J.R.R. Tolkien. For me, this love affair began with my father reading the books to me as a child. It quickly took on new life with the release of the Peter Jackson movies. Everything about this world fascinated me and seemed even at that tender age to be so utterly superior to the world I was living in. As a child, it formed the basis for most of the games I played and I made a couple of close friends (one of whom also autistic) who shared my passion for this world. I had, at long last, found a subject that I truly loved and could become knowledgeable about-and I did. Being an expert, I felt a reluctance to move away from my field and try new things. I continued to play the same games long after other children had moved on. It became an area of expertise that provided much-needed solace in what was a happy childhood, albeit sometimes a confusing one. My desire to attain more knowledge at such a young age (and to be seen as a knowledgeable individual in the eyes of other people) is likely why I latched onto the character of Gandalf in particular.
As I grew older the love for Middle-earth never died down: the flame remained bright, perhaps because it needed to. The pleasant land of the hobbits provided an escape for me from the bullying I was suffering in my adolescent years. The one close friend I had at school at that time was also considered a bit of an outcast and bullied by others. He enjoyed strategy board games and persuaded me to start playing them. This was another form of escape-I have never been good at maths, but some autistic people find it to be an easy subject, perhaps due to the fact that it is based on a set of clearly defined rules. This is the same with most strategy games: and, of course, the game my friend and I played was based around The Lord of the Rings.
Middle-earth has always been there to provide comfort in times of distress. I read the books regularly, often return to the films and still continue to play The Lord of the Rings Online over ten years after its release, it being perhaps the closest thing currently existing to a virtual reality experience in Middle-earth. It also provides the opportunity to roleplay as a character. I have discussed in previous posts how acting has helped me and made arguments as to why it might be a viable career option for some individuals on the spectrum. For many autistic people who might have endured years of rejection from society, the notion of being somebody else or an idealised version of oneself can be quite comforting at times.
Rush and ELO
Pre-17 years of age, my interest in music was based almost exclusively around film soundtracks, which is a fascinating area of study in and of itself. I arrived late to the realm of popular music, the first album I ever bought being Power Windows by the band Rush.
This was a very appropriate band for me to become attached to for many reasons. Rush’s music is, to put it mildly, out of the ordinary. The lyrics are unusually philosophical for rock songs, and the sheer musicianship behind all of their work is something that I as a soundtrack lover appreciated. Given the nature of the music, Rush fans tend to fit the stereotype of ‘social outcast’ pretty darn well. I certainly count myself among that number.
Given the current climate, it is perhaps little wonder that old interests that once provided great comfort to me have resurfaced. Having quickly exhausted my reading and watch lists during lockdown, I decided that I wanted to listen to all of Rush’s studio albums in order, something I’d never found time to do before. This sparked a huge resurgence in my love for the band which has provided much-needed support during this frightening period. At this current moment in time, I would estimate that at least 40% of the thoughts I have upon any given day are Rush related, and most of the music I listen to is Rush. Better to fill my head with the music of a prog rock band I dearly love than, say, Death, Misery, and Stupidity…otherwise known as The Saga of the Human Race, 2020 Revised Edition.
Another factor that played a part in why the band returned to the forefront of my mind was the tragic death of drummer-lyricist Neil Peart in January this year. Neil was a man who I related to a great deal: often seen as a bit of a curmudgeon, he was a fiercely intelligent and sensitive individual (As evident in his lyrics) who loved his fans but found the nature of fame difficult to deal with as an introvert. One of his most famous songs, ‘Limelight’, explores this very issue. He also suffered a great deal of trauma in the late 1990s after losing both his daughter and wife within the space of a year, something he dealt with by retreating for a prolonged period, as I myself have often done when overwhelmed (albeit in much less serious circumstances).
The other band that played a very large part in my development was ELO, otherwise known as Electric Light Orchestra, who I discovered quite by accident while watching a televised Glastonbury concert with the family. During a period of great anxiety in my life (when I was struggling to pass my driving test), the upbeat nature of the music was exactly what I needed. Jeff Lynne is another shy, retiring individual to whom I relate in many ways.
In terms of the big interests, Star Wars is one that has dominated my life, eclipsed only by The Lord of the Rings. In fact, the former was introduced to me in the hopes that it might divert my attention (briefly) from the latter!
There is so much escapism to be found in Star Wars and the almost endless stream of movies, video games and books that have been created under its label since the late 1970s. On the surface, the films are just enjoyable action movies for children: but the many hordes of Star Wars fans, some of them as ancient as Ben Kenobi, prove that there is something about these films that has a deep significance beyond its flashy exterior. The themes of the story touch us because they relate to how we as individuals face and overcome our struggles.
I want to talk about one particular element of Star Wars rather than the series as a whole, firstly because many of the reasons I like this series are similar to the ones I have already discussed for Middle-earth, and secondly because this one element has had a huge impact on me over the course of the past couple of years.
To fixate over a subject is part of my very nature. I simply can’t help it. Imagine being me in 2017, having just graduated university and ready to walk out into the wider world of work…only to discover the mountain of obstacles that lay between me and healthy, sustained full-time employment as an autistic individual. There is a reason why only 16% of us are in full-time employment. On top of that, I had just lost my best friend: my Labrador Max.
Suffice to say, I was in a bad place. In hindsight I realise I was suffering from a newly acquired state of depression that still affects me to this day, as I began to realise just how much more I would have to struggle to get by in the world than the average human being. But I had one thing to look forward to because, even if nothing else in life was going my way, I was looking forward to seeing my hero Luke Skywalker, a symbol of hope and relentless optimism in the face of oppression, take to the screen again. I thought it might bring me some much needed enthusiasm. Crazy, perhaps, to place so much stock in a movie, but I did it nonetheless.
Then I saw the film.
To say I felt crushed would be an understatement. I had been looking forward to this film, mostly because of Luke, every day for the past two years. The last thing I had expected to see was my childhood hero reduced to a bitter, hopeless and frightened old man who had run away from his problems to die alone. Initially I was deeply upset by this as many other Star Wars fans were. After a little thought, however, the portrayal touched me because I saw a large portion of myself in Luke. I felt like the film was speaking to me on a personal level. It related directly to how much I had changed for the worse over the period of only a few months. I understood why Luke had responded to his problems by hiding away and seeking solitude. I myself have always done the same when overwhelmed. For me it’s a necessary survival mechanism.
It took me a long time to fully accept this portrayal, largely because of how excited I had been for the film during a dark time in my life and because of how utterly let down (and yet moved) I had been by it. I often think about the older version of Luke in moments of darkness and it gives me some small comfort to know that even my greatest heroes are human beings capable of falling so spectacularly.
The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski is an example of how completely and utterly consuming a special interest can become.
Between the period of early 2018 to late 2019 I watched the movie over a hundred times, had long hair, wore my Lebowski sweater at every opportunity, and drank many White Russian cocktails. This was because the film gave my life some meaning, even if I myself didn’t truly understand what that meaning was.
I suppose that the film itself, being a bizarre concoction of storylines, themes and characters that make little to no sense at all, was exactly what I needed during that time. The film’s enduring legacy is due almost entirely to its primary protagonist, an aging hippie of an anti-hero who calls himself ‘The Dude’. He is unemployed, lives alone in a tiny apartment, does very little with his life apart from drinking cocktails and bowling, and is generally deemed to be a total loser in the eyes of society; yet he has a wonderfully calm nature, uncaring but gentle. It might be described as a ‘live and let live’ attitude.
It was the complete antithesis of me as a person at that point in time. In truth, I was more like The Dude’s permanently angry friend and foil in the movie, Walter. Anxiety and uncertainty about my future was making life very difficult. It was affecting not only me but also those around me. The film actually made me realise that it is perfectly okay to live in your own little bubble if you so choose. I still take many things far too seriously, but whenever The Big Lebowski comes to mind I begin to feel just a little more at peace.
The movie famously ends with the line: ‘The Dude abides’, ultimately signifying that, no matter what slings and arrows might come his way, The Dude will continue to be himself and not allow the chaotic storm of life to affect him: and to quote the film’s narrator, ‘I take comfort in that’.
What It All Boils Down To
By now I hope that you are starting to understand how important special interests can be. In my case you can probably notice a theme emerging: many of my interests revolve around escapism, all whilst being strangely relevant to myself and my real-life circumstances.
If you have read this far, I hope you’ve found this to be an interesting piece. I hope it has not been too much of a ramble. Talking about my own interests felt somewhat self-indulgent, but it was done with good intentions, in the hope that others might learn a little and/or relate to what is written. One thing is certain: all of these fixations that I have described have been shaped by my being on the autistic spectrum. It was only recently that I acknowledged exactly how important my special interests were and are to me in daily life. They are actually as important to me as eating and sleeping are. My world as I know it would not exist without them.
Luckily in my case, special interests are not my only form of therapy. I am lucky enough not only to have a supportive family and circle of friends, but also the love of two wonderful dogs.
Peace out folks. All the very best.
*Special interests are characterised by repetitive behavioural patterns focused around a single topic. This highly obsessive and often routine-based activity may cause the individual to follow a subject intensely, to the point where other daily activities might be excluded from their routine, with almost every other subject seeming inconsequential to the individual. The obscurity of the topic in question may vary and the behaviour might not necessarily have obvious logical reasoning behind it, depending on the individual and the nature of the interest.