Interests: How they help me, and why they sometimes don't.
Autistic people often get very interested in particular subjects or activities, which take up a lot of their time. My interests include: reading, food, clothes and public speaking, and I would like to share with you their importance to me, and why that is.
I spend a lot of time reading, submerged in the world of words. The books I read tend to follow a particular theme. I am interested in philosophy and psychology, and will tend to read books that help me understand how people think and why they behave the way they do. People are so difficult to work out and often leave me confused and bewildered, so I study them in the comfort of my home. Related to this interest in people is my fascination with particular sub-cultures that appeal to me, both in the present and in the past. For example, currently I am reading about the Bohemians and their roots in 19th century Paris. I have created a list in my note book of everything that is connected to the Bohemians, such as the alcoholic spirit absinthe (what a lovely word!) and Fedora hats. I have synaesthesia (a condition that causes a merging of the senses), which in my case means I see words and numbers in colour. As a consequence I am drawn to particular words such as absinthe and fedora because of their colours; absinthe is green (quite apt considering the beverage is also green) and fedora is red.
I think the bohemians appeal to me because they are free thinkers, rebels and eccentrics, and they often flout conventions. I spend a lot of time consciously trying to fit in to non-autistic society, but it is exhausting. I would like to act like a bohemian and just do my own thing, living freely and creatively.
All my life I have loved food: eating it, thinking about it, studying it, and looking at it. Food is made up of many different nutrients that affect our health, and I enjoy studying the makeup of food and trying to eat as healthily as possible. Consequently I spend a lot of time planning my meals and writing down recipes. I cook most meals from scratch. I particularly enjoy making pancakes, homemade hummus, and soups. I am very experimental and love trying new flavour combinations.
I also have anxieties around food. I worry about contamination and getting ill. This fear developed during my teens when a food technology teacher talked about food hygiene and safety. I took her advice literally and this put me off many foods that I would normally enjoy. For example, I stopped eating fresh meat and fish for fear that I would get sick. However, my interest in nutrition and ability to be logical and constructive when faced with challenges has meant that I have been able to fight my anxiety around cooking fish. With the help of my support worker, I can now prepare and cook fish, and eat the fish with a reduction in anxiety. If I was not so intensely interested in food and being healthy, I do not think I would have been able to overcome this fear.
Another major interest is clothes and clothes shopping. Wearing clothes puts me in a particular frame of mind by giving me an identity that I can play around with. I am always copying other people and trying to be a particular type of person, even if this is only in fantasy. I would love to dress like a bohemian, but it is hard to find bohemian clothes. My favourite store is H&M, and I could practically live there because I look round the shop most weeks. Shopping can be stressful because shops can be noisy and busy, but when I am intensely focused on trying on clothes, I can detach more easily from my surroundings. I am full of positive adrenalin and get a kick out of finding and buying new clothes. This activity takes my mind off all my other anxiety, although I do worry if I am spending too much money on clothes. I cannot relax until I have completed my collection, and I continually obsess about clothes in my mind. For example, I have to have a certain number of trousers or t shirts, and I worry in case my money will run out and I won’t be able to buy the clothes.
I also worry in case I accidentally damage my clothes by pulling on a zip too hard or breaking a seam. Even if I slightly touch my clothes with my bag or someone brushes against them, I will worry in case the clothing has been spoiled. New clothes will sit for ages in my cupboard before I wear them because I have to wait for the perfect time, and clothes have to be worn in a certain order. I have two sets of clothes: one set for rough use and one set for social use. The former consists of a small set of old clothes that I will wear for days on end, and when I change into these clothes I feel liberated and that I don’t need to put on a social act any more. When I am preparing to meet someone or go to a group, I will wear my social clothes, which are special, and in my eyes more respectable looking. Consequently I worry more about damaging them. I am not that fashionable, but part of me wants to dress like everyone else or to follow a particular socially acceptable way of dressing. I watch other people and try and learn from them how to wear clothes, and what size of clothing I should buy. In the past I used to buy clothes that were way too big because working out sizes is difficult. This does not come naturally to me.
Finally I love public speaking and talking about my autism. I think this is for two reasons. Firstly public speaking is highly structured, rehearsed, planned, and scripted. This means I don’t have to worry about what to say, and I can take part in a social interaction without my social weaknesses getting in the way. I do not experience any stage fright when speaking in front of hundreds of people. In fact I experience ten times more anxiety when I am socialising with a small group of people, or even when I am having a social one to one conversation. This is because I have to work very hard to know what to say and I don’t know what will happen.
I enjoy imparting information and talking about topics that I am passionate about, such as autism. I was only diagnosed when I was 21 years old and spent all my life not knowing why I struggled to make friends, and feeling like a complete outcast. It helps me to process the past by talking about it, and I feel good when I have helped others better understand autism because it makes me feel more included and validated.
All my interests bring purpose and meaning to my life, as well as being enjoyable and comforting. They form part of my routine and bring a sense of order to my universe. All the interests are bound up with anxiety. I worry in case I can’t pursue them or that my routines, for example my two hours reading most mornings, will unexpectedly change. Yet the other side of the coin is that these interests help me get through life and overcome obstacles.