I feel like when allistics talk about autism, it’s usually a narrative that being Autistic is some sort of tragedy. We’re a missing puzzle piece. They need to “find a cure”. Sometimes Autism parents talk about “losing” their child to Autism (even though their child is still completely alive, just…not neurotypical).
There are sometimes things I find inconvenient or annoying about being Autistic. My sensory issues are usually handled with things like wearing sunglasses or “ear protectors” (noise cancelling. headphones). However, I don’t really like crowds and they’re an invitation to a meltdown/shutdown. And there are a lot of cool events that happen in crowded places, and I usually either opt out or spend several days recovering from being around so many people. Also, going non-verbal can be scary if I’m not around people who are willing to use text-based communication with me. And when I can’t avoid them: meltdowns and shutdowns are the worst.
However, there are definitely things I love about being Autistic. To the point where if someone offered me a so-called “cure”, I don’t think I’d take it, because I wouldn’t want to give up the good stuff.
Let me introduce you to an Autistic super power that we also share with our ADHD brethren: hyperfocus. Hyperfocus is basically the mythical state that neurotypicals refer to as “flow.” There’s all sorts of tips and tricks for trying to achieve a flow state, because you can get a lot done when you’re in flow. It’s basically immersing yourself in a topic or an activity, sometimes for hours, and it feels like time isn’t passing. You can get so much accomplished! Or as I like to think of it, hyperfocus for me is like I am a snake unhinging my jaw and swallowing knowledge whole.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to pick what you hyperfocus on (especially if you have ADHD or executive dysfunction). It has to be something that grabs your interest; I can’t just turn on hyperfocus for anything. It would be too powerful, so the universe had to nerf this skill somehow.
Hyperfocus is just…a lovely way to spend your time. It’s easier to tune out sensory issues because your whole being is just consumed by The Thing You Are Focusing On. And I generally find it rejuvenating rather than tiring. Although if I try to push it further than its natural cycle, I can get exhausted almost immediately. There is a rhythm to hyperfocus/flow, and it often means you can’t force the attention…you just have to kind of ride along until it runs out naturally.
I am lucky in that I find most academic topics interesting. So when I was in school, it was relatively easy for me to learn new things. I got curious about the topic, and then I unleashed my hyperfocus and just rode it until I had learned whatever I was supposed to learn.
Unfortunately this meant that the few times I was bored in school, learning became this impossible morass. Sometimes I learned an entire chapter in a day or so when the teacher planned to spend weeks on it. At this point I definitely had a hard time maintaining focus, because I wanted to move on to more interesting things, not go over the same topic. Another downside is that I don’t really have study skills; I either learn things completely and immediately at once, or I memorize just enough to pass a test and then forget it. (This is a common “gifted kid” problem.) I don’t know if there is a way for me to more slowly learn something that is difficult and doesn’t tap into my hyperfocus, because honestly I’ve never really had to learn. Every superpower has a price, right?
Hyperfocus becomes exponentially more potent when combined not just with something I am curious about, but with a Special Interest ™. You may be familiar with Autistic special interests because allistics tend to complain about our special interests: some very common ones are learning everything about trains, or Horse Girls ™ learning basically everything there is to know about horses. (Note: people who write the diagnostic criteria for Autism have historically overlooked Autistic special interests as they occur in cis girls and trans people).
Here’s an example of some of my special interests:
- dogs, cats, and animal behavior
- history, particularly the history of the African diaspora
- new research on my chronic illnesses (for example, fibromyalgia, MCAS, POTS, hEDS/HSD)
- human anatomy (as pertains to areas of my body that hurt)
- knitting, spinning yarn, and fiber arts history
- queer history
It’s generally easy for me to hyperfocus on my current special interest. It’s like I’m playing a video game and I have multiple stacking skill buffs; boss fights become a piece of cake.
I specify “current” special interests because my special interests rotate. For example, I used to be into Everything Horses. I was in elementary school and read every Saddle Club book I could get my hands on; every Misty of Chincoteague book. I read non-fiction books about horses. I did a science fair project on horse evolution. When I learn about a special interest, I learn a lot of different aspects of a particular topic. Until somehow my brain gets full or has enough or something, or in the case of horses when I discovered that I actually did not really like riding horses competitively and that was what most stable classes are geared towards. And then I moved on to dogs, which has become one of my lifetime special interests even though I do not currently have a dog.
More recently, I went through a period where I learned everything I could about knitting. I taught myself to knit, and then the next month I knit a baby sweater. In about 48 hours. Sometimes I wonder where exactly the line is between my own hypomania and special interests + hyperfocus. I used to not know what special interests and hyperfocus were, and so when they would happen I would be afraid that it was a sign hypomania (and then the inevitable deep dive into depression). It blocked a lot of joy from my life, because I tried so hard to resist spontaneously learning everything I could about a topic. As I’ve relaxed about this, it has helped both my autism and the way I manage my bipolar II.
I also taught a friend of mine how to knit, and they are quite a successful and prolific knitter now. But when we’ve told other knitters how I taught my friend, they’ve been surprised. I teach how I learn: the broad outline of a topic, at once, so you can understand all the different parts and the principles behind them. For me, once I understand the basic underlying principles of something, I can learn and do and try new things so much faster. Each new piece of knowledge fits into the pattern of how this new exciting thing works.
How are you supposed to start a project if you don’t understand what kinds of yarns are used for what kinds of projects? How are you supposed to pick knitting needles if you don’t understand that bamboo needles are easier for beginners, but metal needles help you knit faster? Dear readers, my friend may not have absorbed everything I said that night (which is why I provided them with a handout), but they learned a lot about knitting much faster than your average beginner.
It is good to have appropriate outlets for special interests, because sometimes special interests can result in a common social disconnect. An allistic person making so-called small talk might say, “Oh, what are you knitting?” And because I tend to think about special interests as like, the entirety of it, it’s very difficult to parse down a short answer like, “A hat,” which is what allistic people seem to expect. If I don’t realize what is happening, I can embark on an informative presentation on the history of this particular hat pattern as used during World War II knitting; where I got the fiber and its emotional significance; how I’m making up the pattern based on Barbara Walker stitch dictionaries and what those are and how great Barbara Walker is.
It can be really hard to not just…launch into sharing all this information. Because I find it so interesting, and I want to share, because wouldn’t most people find this interesting? It’s so cool, and also it’s dominating my brain and it’s all I can think about so it can be hard to think of anything else to talk about. This is why I (and some other autistic people) tend to do well with say, knitting groups, where everyone actually is interested in talking about the benefits of Kitchener stitch.
Without these kinds of outlets, it can be really lonely as an Autistic person: there can be so much going on with us about trains or knitting or whatever, and people often don’t want to hear about it because allegedly that’s not how conversations work. Whereas when I’m with other neurodivergent people, I can often conduct a sort of exchange: we trade off talking about our special interests. And honestly, I may not know what a friend is actually talking about when they’re doing a deep dive into their special interest, but I love their enthusiasm. I love seeing the light come on in their eyes. I love giving them an outlet to talk about what they love without shame, or worrying that they’re secretly boring me.
This is one of the frequent disconnects between allistics and autistics in terms of making conversation, and I wish sometimes that allistic people would learn to meet us in the middle. Maybe they’d learn something about what we’re excited about, or maybe they’d just enjoy watching the joy in our eyes. And I’d personally be happy to give them a chance to talk about whatever they want, if they wouldn’t get that bored spaced out look that means “I am tuning out what you are saying because this isn’t how I do conversations.”
Special interests and hyperfocus also help me cope with brain fog. Brain fog is a symptom of fibromyalgia (and other conditions) that causes impaired cognition. Things like aphasia, difficulty concentrating, difficulty reading paper books vs ebooks (possibly just a me thing), etc. It can make reading and processing information very difficult. I struggle doing things like processing verbal information over a phone call or remembering a simple series of numbers. However, if I can somehow initiate my hyperfocus and/or special interest, I can sometimes spend a few hours with much fewer cognitive difficulties. It’s like it somehow balances out. But again, I don’t always get to pick what I hyperfocus on, and I don’t always get to pick my special interests.
Currently, I’m really tempted to go back through this post and change the format into the streamlined essay pattern I learned in school. An introduction, some sort of thesis statement, individual paragraphs, and a conclusion. This post is more reflective of how I think. It’s not stream of consciousness, but it’s a lot more thoughts about hyperfocus and special interests than I would share if I was trying to write a traditional essay. It’s the details and the how of it and the underlying structure, so maybe you can really understand what I’m talking about.
If you take away one thing, though, let it be this: hyperfocus and special interests are delightful and as satisfying as stimming. Let autistic kids like trains (or horses).