In this entry I am going to talk about the importance of interests in making life more bearable for autistic people. I am going to focus on my teenage years because this was the time when interests really helped me manage anxiety and social isolation.
From the age of 11 until 21 I was extremely interested in the actress Kate Winslet and babies. What this means is that every single minute of every day I was relating to the world around me through the prism of Kate Winslet. The baby obsession was generated by Winslet, after Winslet had her baby Mia in the year 2000. I needed to find out what it was like to be pregnant and look after babies, so that I could better imagine what Kate Winslet was experiencing. I began to read Practical Parenting magazine, Mother and Baby, and Pregnancy and Birth. I read every single article in these magazines, skipping nothing, not even the adverts. I kept the videos and CDs that sometimes came with the magazines, and would watch them on repeat. For example, DVDs about potty training or weaning, and nursery rhyme CDs. I kept the baby dummies from the magazines, and sucked them as if I were a baby, and I watched Telly Tubbies and other children’s TV. I even ate rusks and petis filous baby yogurts, anything to better access the world of Kate Winslet. Before long I was an expert not only on Winslet’s life, but on child development and pregnancy.
The interest gave meaning to my life, which meant that even just waiting for a train could be exciting. I kept a baby spotting diary, and would take detailed notes on every single baby I saw, following them round the town centre. On trains I would move seats to sit opposite a baby. Every movement the baby made was recorded, as well as the make of pram and the interactions between parent and baby, nothing was missed. The interest inspired me to do work experience age 15 at a local nursery school. As soon as I got home I recorded in great detail what the children had to eat, and what they had said, and I memorised all their names and how they looked. Every time I interacted with them, I had an image of Winslet’s toddler Mia in my head, as I compared their age and development with Mia. I carried on volunteering at the nursery until I was 18 years old. Age 17 I did work experience at a local primary school, working with the infants. This was at a time when I had bad OCD around germs and illness, but the interest motivated me to be around snotty nosed children in spite of this anxiety. I think of it as though my anxiety and interest were a pair of scales. The higher the interest, the lower the anxiety, and as long as the interest is in the ascendant, I can be motivated to do things I would not be able to do if the anxiety were higher than the interest or if they were poised equally on the scales. The interest also motivated me to do a brief childcare course associated with my school, where I learned about child development. The course was filled with other kids, some of them from a different secondary school to my one, and normally this would be very anxiety provoking. But again, my interest was higher on the scales than my anxiety.
The Kate Winslet interest meanwhile motivated me to start attending a dance class every Friday after school, which I kept up for over 4 years. By attending this class I felt closer to Winslet, and I vaguely imagined being an actress myself, something that has not materialised!. We did tap, ballet and modern dance, as well as singing, and we put on shows at a girl’s school and Theatre. I had no stage fright and really enjoyed the rehearsals. I felt a great sense of achievement after being on stage, particularly as it could take me a long time to learn a dance routine (as I can struggle with certain aspects of coordination). This class provided me with at least some social interaction, as I had failed at making friends in school. The kids at the class were all younger than me, which helped, as I found it easier to relate to younger kids.
The greatest Winslet related achievement occurred one summer when I was 16 years old. I saw Winslet’s older sister, interestingly enough also called Anna, perform with a local Theatre Company called Tour De Force, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was lucky enough to get her autograph after the performance, and I saw her perform again in Macbeth in September, which again I would not normally have done were it not for my interest. I learnt that Tour De Force were recruiting extras for next year’s performance, and I applied. I had to travel in a stranger’s car to a remote office in the countryside in order to be interviewed. Again, I had no fear because I was so interested in being with someone who had actually met Anna Winslet!!. I was over joyed when I got given the extra role of a peasant girl in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. I attended every rehearsal, and loved looking after the actor’s children (meaning both my Winslet and baby interest were satisfied). Anna Winslet herself was no longer acting with the company but that did not matter. I was just over the moon to be performing with people who had acted with Winslet, and I became slightly obsessed with a blond haired actress who I had seen performing with Anna Winslet as one of the witches in Macbeth. I kept looking at her and studying her, although she probably did not notice!
Another way my interest helped was at school. I related all my school work to Winslet. For example in History I related what I learnt about the Suffragettes in an indirect way to Winslet, and when I learnt about weddings in Religious Education I thought about Winslet’s wedding. Everything could be related to Winslet in my mind, even things that had only an indirect relationship. Via Winslet I memorised Midsummer Night’s Dream off by heart, and learnt a lot about New York, where Winslet was currently living. Subjects that might not normally interest me became interesting through Winslet, and eventually I learnt to become interested in a greater number of things. What appeared initially to be a very narrow interest, actually enabled me to branch out and open up my horizons.
During family walks on Sundays or on holiday I quizzed my mum and dad about babies and Winslet facts, and this meant that before long the whole family knew almost as much about Winslet as I did. It was the only way that I could interact with them, but at least it was some interaction rather than nothing. I memorised Winslet’s films off by heart as well as her TV interviews, and on our walks, which I otherwise found boring, I would act out the interviews or the Titanic screenplay.
At University, where I studied History while staying at home with my parents, my interest in Winslet gradually waned. At first this greatly bothered me because I worried that nothing would be meaningful anymore. But it was around this time that I was diagnosed with autism, and before long I was obsessed with autism and finding out everything I could about it. I volunteered at a local autism charity at a time when I was hardly leaving the house, but my interest motivated me to travel. I had not been on a train for years, but I was so keen to volunteer at the charity that I overcame my anxiety on this particular route. I also discovered an interest in public speaking and autism awareness raising, which I still have to this day, over 10 years since my diagnosis. Normally travelling makes me very anxious because of a combination of factors. I have OCD which makes me worried about germs, going to new places scares me in case I can’t get back home or something bad happens. But when I’m called to give a talk, the sense of purpose, interest and motivation overcomes this anxiety.
One of my ongoing interests since childhood has been food. As an adult this interest has deepened still further, after a brief lessening in intensity during the Winslet years. The interest motivates me to constantly experiment in the kitchen because I love cooking and collecting recipe ideas. I have some food related anxiety around hygiene and germs as well as some trepidation around trying new shop bought food, but my interest has helped me challenge this anxiety. I eat an exceptionally varied diet because of my interest in healthy eating and nutrition, and my interests mean I am rarely bored. My other major current interest is reading, particularly food or philosophy books but also anything about certain historical eras and fashions that catches my attention at a particular time. This interest can cause stress as I worry constantly that my reading routine will be disturbed by noise, but on the positive side it means I am constantly learning and always have something to get up for in the morning.
The general positive message I wish to impart in this piece is that special interests can help an autistic person broaden their horizons, overcome anxiety, keep boredom at bay, and can aid learning. It’s important to work with a person’s interests, no matter how narrow and obsessive they appear, and try and use that interest to the person’s advantage.
In the picture above I am holding my brand new school lunch box while sitting on my Aunt’s lap. I was obsessed with food (still am), and this interest helped me get used to starting school.