Autistic attention IV: Specialised Interest vs Social Disinterest

In other posts, I’ve touched on some of the different ways I experience my own ‘autistic attention’ – ranging from very helpful (eg heightened creative focus, problem-solving, mindful awareness) to hinderance (eg anxiety, depression, rumination).  As described in Part I, regarding my years of obsessive drawing, when this hyperfocus is channelled into a particular topic, it can lead to the development of highly-specialised skills, deeply immersive learning, and even seemingly ‘uncommon’ abilities. 

I say seemingly because these abilities are perhaps not so ‘uncommon’ when we remember that whenever we give our total attention to something, allowing no distraction, and with a strong desire to learn, our brains are much more receptive to depth and complexity of information.  If this level of attention is sustained and consistent over time, our brains will naturally develop a more sophisticated understanding of whatever we are focusing on.  Some brains (not only autistic) have a natural capacity for this kind of attention.

The excitement of neurotransmitters (eg via focused curiosity) generates more connective pathways in the brain, which in turn creates better conditions for learning.  When they feel excited about a theme, many autistic people are able to compress a lot of complex interconnected information into whatever timeframe they give it because they sustain a high level of curiosity (interest).

In descriptions of autism, and in particular Aspergers, this capacity for specialised attention (and pronounced depth of knowledge) on a particular topic has attracted the common tag of ‘special interest’. I have offered my reasons for moving away from that term in my ‘Glossary Of Terms I Won’t Be Using’, but in this context it may be more useful to replace it with ‘specialised interest’.

At this point I’d like to slice away a few related but distracting elements, or at least put them aside for the moment.  In this post I’m not talking about savant abilities, which are a complex conversation in themselves.  Nor am I meaning genius or talent, though these both deserve deeper interrogation – human culture seems to have somehow elevated these ideas to a disproportionate Otherness, in a confusing mix of awe and contempt.  Also the word hobby is often associated with ‘special interest’: I reject hobby altogether, as I feel it is mostly used in a patronising way and diminishes the personal significance of the activity. In a more thoughtful society, a person’s private choice to spend time doing something fulfilling for themselves might be valued as an expression of their being, not belittled by some comparative measure of societal relevance or material value. ‘Just’ a hobby is akin to ‘just’ an amateur, an imposition of diminutive status.

Instead I’d like to concentrate on ‘specialised interest’ as an ability, a complex neurological event describing increased connectivity within the brain.

Systemising and patternmaking

Some of the specialised abilities that an Aspergers brain might naturally draw on (for any number of applications) include:

  • Intense concentration
  • Fine motor sensitivity and control
  • Attention to minute detail as well as patterns in much larger systems
  • Acute visual, audio or other sensitivity
  • Increased memory capacity for specific information (via immersive learning)
  • Abstraction of ideas into new or different contexts (innovation)
  • Deep understanding of specialised tools, equipment, technique

Any of these aspects of systemising can be found not only across all areas of medicine, psychology, education, the Arts and sciences, but also in any number of less romanticised lines of work.  It is just plain silly to assume that all autistic people want to work in a tech company or research lab.  And while many autistic people work best in solitude, many others find engaging with other people easy and rewarding, especially when they feel a shared motivation or interest, and when they feel their contribution is genuinely valued. 

Consider the autistic car mechanic who has such a refined technical and sensory understanding of minute relationships within a machine, that they can diagnose a vehicle’s trouble by its sound alone.  I met a young boy once who could take any broken electrical device and fix it, instinctively, as if it were an organic extension of himself – he had not been taught, and no-one else in the family shared this skill. These abilities of the brain are not only technical in their orientation (eg engineering, technology).  Systems and patterns exist everywhere, and can be experienced as sensory, organic, behavioural or conceptual information.

My partner Heidi, a teacher, has a very specialised ability (and interest) in data assessment, which she finds intellectually stimulating because the focus is on identifying patterns in data.  This specialised interest is further motivated by her altruistic passion for improving how children learn, and a very keen sense of social patternmaking – the central position of relationships in healthy learning environments.  In her autistic brain, patternmaking is also expressed as a sense of design, which she utilises in her data assessment (creating graphs, spreadsheets, presentations) and in her teaching (creating visual resources, displays, presentations etc).

Her instinctive sense for composition also makes her a remarkably creative cook, with an alchemical understanding of how ingredients interact at a molecular level to produce flavour & texture.  Similarly, she utilises her autistic perception and design thinking in her nature photography, with an uncommon awareness of light and form, zooming in on minute details in order to capture beautiful abstractions of colour and texture.

I’m sure most people consider drawing and music the most obvious specialised interests I demonstrate in their perceptions of me.  It makes sense as these two areas of focus were also central to my public work for decades. Yet I have applied my creative attention to such a diversity of contexts (not the least being survival) that I arrived many years ago at a point of metasynthesis in my thinking: I saw that the medium & the product (eg drawing, painting, music, teaching), even the notion of ‘art’ itself, were more like symptoms,  and ultimately irrelevant. In recognising that I apply essentially the same core neural processes whenever I generate creative attention, I saw that my lifelong specialised interest is not ‘being an artist’, but more accurately, a metastudy of creative experience itself.

By extension, given that I also make no separation between my creative life and the rest of my lived experience, this study of creative Being has a symbiotic relationship with my other lifelong specialised interest, ie the study of Self and existence, perception and experience, the study of one’s own consciousness, via psychology & philosophy. In this sense, I could say that I am my own ‘special interest’.  While this might be misconstrued as narcissistic, I am genuinely baffled by existence and the question of ‘what am I?’.  Many autistic adults report being very self-aware; that is, having developed deep insight and understanding of one’s personal processes. One common motivator is adaptation, itself a state of creative action – constant processes of gauging oneself against an often alien culture, assessing and modifying in order to ‘fit’.

Beyond stereotypes

In the contemporary ‘autism narrative’, the perennial stereotype of nerd / geek / nutty professor of bygone eras is only slightly rebranded to fit our earnest PC inclusiveness, but no less limited in scope: the ‘little professor’, the reciter of train types and timetables, the IT wiz, the polymath, the technical engineer etc.  I have even read articles by ‘professionals in the field’ suggesting that having engineers in the family was a sure indicator of genetic autism.  We would do better to ignore stereotypes and broaden our perceptions of Aspergers abilities beyond ‘type’.

Brains wired for specialised focus can be housed in any human body, in any environment. Life circumstances & social conditioning naturally have a significant impact on how this focus develops, what direction it takes, and what kind of ‘work’ this focus is applied to, if any. 

Before industrialisation spawned convenience over quality, we humans used to hold in high regard individuals who honed their particular skills as artisans or masters of their trade.  There was respect for their skill and focus, their depth of knowledge, the obvious care & attention to detail in their work that distinguished it from the work of others.  These individuals developed their mastery over many years of devoted focus and immersive learning, either in isolation or with the guidance of an elder ‘master’.

Now, in our superficial, self-gratifying digitised culture, in which anything can be simulated & made generic at the tap of one button or another, a large chunk of the population has no measure of quality in any form of work, no patience for process, and no appreciation of the complex attention required in any skill or talent.  We are faced with generations of spoon-fed, ‘dumbed-down’ & dependent humans whose lack of basic ability is in sharp contrast to an emerging autistic population with innate and highly-specialised abilities.

I often wonder if our social measures are distorted.  If the majority of humans have been getting progressively stupider (put more kindly: incapable of critical or independent thought, unable to problem-solve in life, lacking emotional intelligence, illiterate and innumerate, lacking fundamental communication skills etc), then, in relative terms, anyone possessing a natural propensity for the basic aforementioned skills could easily seem ‘exceptional’.  It often seems to me that many traits described as natural to autism (and here I include altruistic / humanitarian values, hyper-awareness of environment, creative innovation through problem-solving) are abilities our ancient ancestors all needed to embody as a matter of survival.  While there is talk of autism being an evolutionary step into the future, might it not be that what we call ‘autistic’ awareness was once the common awareness our species relied on to survive, and that our currently increasing dependence on the teat of culture has ‘devolved’ the species?

As with most minority groups, many of the problems autistics face are not due to individual deficit, but are societal, suggesting the need for major shifts in collective attitudes. In the context of ‘work’, the incidence of ‘overqualified’ yet ‘under-employed’ autistic adults is distressingly high and is contributing further to the disproportionately high rates of isolation, depression & suicidality in the autistic population. Many of these people (myself included) are struggling to understand how to make their ‘exceptional’ skills and conscientious motivations fit in a culture seemingly obsessed with, or resigned to, bland mediocrity or blatant obsolescence.

What we have here is a failure to communicate…

Socially, in the current narrative, an Aspergan person with a specialised interest is often presented as something of a problem for people around them, another autistic social deficit – the autistic person who talks incessantly about their favourite subject and doesn’t know when to shut up. I am familiar with both ends of this dynamic; I know the surge of energy and inspiration I feel when I’m free to articulate my thoughts in depth, and I know how depleted and awkward I can feel when someone else dominates a conversation with a subject I have no interest in.  

Interestingly, ‘other people’ (and here I probably mean non-autistic) have no problem talking incessantly about sport, sex, clothes, food, weather, politics, fashion or in particular, each other (ie gossip). 

Yet more often than not, the suggestion is that the autistic person be taught to modify their behaviour in order to meet conventional (dominant) social expectations of a shared conversation.

My main beef with this line of thought is: where do non-autistics take responsibility in their own communication? The art of shared conversation is relational, and the responsibility is mutual.  It includes actively listening, without feeling compelled to have your say, or to even have an opinion; shared conversation also includes cultivating ways to be curious or interested, to embrace the other person’s topic as an opportunity to learn something unexpected; to ask thoughtful questions that might offer interesting answers or even add something new to mutual understanding.      

The art of conversation, of oratory and articulation, all express the art of arranging symbols into patterns of communication.  Tribal societies developed very clear parameters around talking and listening, recognised the importance of direct and truthful communication, and valued the power of oral tradition to share knowledge.

I know very well how it feels to sit with someone who talks incessantly about their own particular interest, and there were times when it helped me develop more patience, or find tactful inclusion, or even to find the courage to frankly explain that I’d had enough and needed a break. Every interaction provides us with choices. The challenge for us all, if we truly wish to communicate effectively together, is to intercept these moments of choice with awareness and an attitude of possibility.