Aspies (in fact, all high functioning autistics) have obsessive behaviors and interests. In the Aspie community, the term “Special Interests” has been adopted to refer to these behaviors. Special interests are exactly what they sound like – an interest that holds the attention of our scattered thought patterns. The reason these are “Special” interests is that holding our attention is not an easy task. (ADHD, or similar symptomology, runs rampant among Aspies.
Hans Asperger described the Aspies in his experiment as “Little Professors.” This is because Aspies have the aforementioned Special Interests. Our brains latch on to a specific topic and applies the powers of hyper-focus and Obsessive Compulsive behaviors to it and research, absorb, dissect, analyze, interpolate, and internalize every aspect of the Special Interest in question.
What this means is that your Aspie will talk about it. A lot. Actually… A lot doesn’t even begin to cover it. Your Aspie will babble about it. Incessantly. Without ceasing. Ad nauseum. Ad infinitum. To the point that you will want to strangle them. And then they will babble about it until your eyes glaze. Then, they will babble about it til your ears bleed. And then… Guess what? They will babble some more.
It will be frustrating, in the extreme, for you.
If you have an Autistic Spectrum individual in your life, you need to accept this particular behavior. Moreover, you need to revel in it.
Before I cover the mechanisms behind Special Interests… Let’s put things into perspective.
Neurotypicals like to talk about sports, relationships, shopping trips, religion and politics. I am sure that you enjoy talking about these topics. Now, think back to the last time that someone talked to you about one of these things… one of them that you have no interest in. The conversation was almost intolerable, wasn’t it? Now… Think about how often you have yammered on about these same things to your Aspie.
So… if you can be polite to your NT friends about their interests, and you are in an interpersonal relationship with an Aspie, then you need to be as supportive of them as your NT friends. The problem with our special interests is that we engage in them the same way we do everything else… 150% or not at all.
Special Interests are bewildering to everyone – even us. We tend to be classified as emotionless… or at least, more logical, than the average person. A lot of people say that this reduces the intensity of our emotions. They would be wrong. We feel as deeply and as intensely as any Nerotypical. We simply have a more difficult time processing those emotions and an even more difficult time expressing those same emotions. This difficulty in externalizing our feelings can make things difficult for us. Since most of our emotions end up internalized, we can end up with them reaching a boiling point.
Now, think about this… when we discover a Special Interest, we are externalizing an emotional response.
I know, intense, right?
Now, let’s talk about some of the mechanisms involved.
Endorphins are chemicals released by the brain. They are neurotransmitters, natural pain pain killers and relieve stress… Or rather, they act to counter the chemical causes of stress and ameliorate the symptoms of stress issues on the brain.
Intense biological studies of the brain have revealed that the same endorphins are released when fulfilling an obsession or engaging in the obsessive behaviors associated with OCD as are released by the brain when Neurotypicals fall in love.
Think about the emotions and sensations associated with falling in love. The excitement making your heart pound. You get butterflies in your stomach. You get a pleasant tingle. It feels good. It feels REALLY good.
I want you to think about that. I only have myself as an example to work with here… but I want you to think about this… I get the same feeling when I talk about quantum physics, film making, RC cars, gaming, my collections and writing as you do when you are in love.
Simply put, the presence, exercise, and tackling of a special interest for an Aspie, makes us feel better. It allows us a way to vent emotional pressure, stress relief and more. We are finally able to talk about an emotionally charged topic without difficulty.
Further – studies have linked chronic pain to Autistic Spectrum disorders. No one is quite sure why this is… I have theories, but they are only observational, without corroborating evidence as to a cause. Needless to say, almost every Aspie I have ever spoken to (myself included) has problems with chronic pain. Endorphins are natural pain killers. As a result, engaging in our special interests can and does actually improve physical functioning.
Special interests are different from standard Obsessive Behaviors. Compulsive behaviors are intrusive and are RARELY enjoyable… (there are some exceptions, but not many). Compulsive Behaviors associated with OCD are compulsions that prevent normal function and can outright interfere with enjoyment of everyday things. Special Interests share many of the same compulsive components as OCD… but they are FUN. A thing that OCD cannot claim.
So… you have a basic inkling of what it is like to have special interests. Please do not view this as dismissive, but it is an inkling only… it is not possible for someone who does not have OCD to understand what a compulsive behavior truly is. The closest metaphor I can come up with is that it is akin to breathing. Try holding your breath until you pass out. You can’t, because your nerves carry a compulsion to breathe.
Now that you have an idea of what it is like… There are some other things that you will eventually notice with your Aspie. A few Special Interests will be permanent. (this is VERY few) Most of the time, you will be inundated with one topic and then suddenly, your Aspie will start in on a new Interest – one you’ve never head them talk about.
As with all stimulus, the brain adjusts to all stimuli. So, eventually, interests will fade. It takes more and more of the special interest just to maintain the connection to our endorphins. Eventually… the brain stops responding to that stimulus and that Special Interest is tapped out. eventually the endorphin response fades and we’re left standing there… empty… So we have to develop a new one. This is an instinctive action, and we don’t even know we’re doing it. It’s a compulsion that we can’t fight and most of us wouldn’t dream of trying.
Then we discover our new Special interest and we pursue it with passion. We research, experience and devour it. We push it into our brains, our souls and into our very veins… EXACTLY like a drug.
We are addicts, plain and simple. But so are NTs. NTs are addicted to emotions and their own endorphins and have a lot more and easier ways to achieve that endorphin production.
Take those Special Interests and add in the OCD triggered by the process and you will see that Aspies have NO CHOICE but to engage in this behavior – as annoying as it can be for the NTs in our lives.
I said that this produces many of the same feelings and sensations as being in love. Having been one of the lucky Aspies to have experienced complete, unconditional love (of the romantic kind), I can confirm that this is true. I want you to imagine this… Imagine a life without feeling that thrill of being in love.
Now… imagine that you have the ability to claim that power once again… something that TRULY brings you joy. That is what our special interests are to us.
As an NT in a relationship with an Aspie, you have a hard row to hoe. You have to accept that this is how we are. We don’t WANT to be this way, but it is how we are. So, you have to accept it… No… if you want your Aspie to thrive, you have to revel in it. You can’t cringe when we bring up our interests… we don’t want to do it… we need to…
Also, keep in mind… if we are sharing our Special Interest with you… you have been let in. You are trusted and cared about. We don’t even bother to talk to those people who we don’t a) have an emotional attachment to or b) see as someone worth your time. By nattering on and on and on… and on and on… and on about their Special Interest, your Aspie is saying, in their own odd way, I care about and respect you.
If you have an Autistic Spectrum individual in your life, and they bring IT up… if you feel it is intolerable… think about the emotions and sensations associated with endorphins and ask yourself… “would my Aspie deny me the ability to feel what it is like to be in love?”
Images in this issue SHAMELESSLY stolen from the following sources: