Expanding our Language in Relation to Autistic “Special Interests”
The client's SPINs are IMPORTANT to the client. This cannot be overstated. SPINs are the vehicle by which the client can engage in meditation and healing. Allistics (people who are not autistic) tend to see SPINs as obsessions and think of them as an unhealthy focus, but this is what brings us joy. A lot of autistic trauma comes from allistics telling us that our interests don't matter. But, to an autistic person, our SPINs are an inseparable part of our identity. We ARE what we love. To accept us is to accept our SPINs. An allistic may not understand an autistic’s SPINs, but the allistic MUST accept them and be enthusiastic in learning about them. That enthusiasm helps us bond socially in an autistic way, and that is a big part of autistic interpersonal therapy.
I think it would be hard to improve on Matt Lowry’s description above of the vital importance of “Special Interests” or “SPINs” in the life of an autistic person (and therefore in the therapy process for an autistic client).
What I want to do in this blog post is to help stimulate the growth of a wider vocabulary for talking about this aspect of autistic living. The term “Special Interest” is useful up to a point, but it is very limited and only captures a small part of this fascinating phenomenon (the term “Special” also has associations with the term “Special Needs”, which is unpopular with many autistic people).
The sort of activities that we refer to as autistic Special Interests sometimes fall into the category of recognisable, even common, hobbies e.g. watercolour painting, gaming, gardening, fishing, collecting some kind of memorabilia, etc.
Alternatively, they can be something we would more readily categorise as job/career/profession e.g. lecturing, coding, archaeology, landscape gardening, etc.
But a SPIN could be
- something much more subtle, such as trying to get to know the different routes, backroads & shortcuts in the town where you live
- a more temporary but intense project, like becoming an expert in everything about Berlin, because of an upcoming city break
- a very large, life-transforming cause, such as saving the planet
- an interest that affects many aspects of your life, such as a passion for French language and culture, which could lead you to lecture on this topic in a university, spend most of your holidays in France, collect French books, perhaps marry someone French, and maybe eventually retire to France…
Actually, SPINs are just a central part of how we autistics live our lives and engage with the world.
So how else can we talk about this complex and deep area?
Recently I’ve been having a lot of conversations about this with many of my autistic clients. Some of the language that Matt Lowry uses above came up very strongly:
- Bonding opportunities
A lot of clients felt, as I do, that something like “Intense Passion/Enthusiasm” captures the experience better that “Special Interest”. One client suggested the wonderful phrase “Labour of Love”. The terms “Obsession” and “Compulsion” were generally seen as partially accurate, but they were felt to have too much negativity to capture the huge positive potential of a SPIN to be:
- A Joy bringer
- A Passion stirrer
- A Flow-state inducer (feeling “in our element”)
- A Mastery challenge
The term “Fixation” was definitely seen as missing the point!
SPINs were generally seen as real, deep needs, driven by an autistic’s tendency towards:
- Exploration, discovery
- Pattern-seeking, systemising
- “Project thinking”
- Collecting, memorising
Engagement in SPINs was described as adding:
- Enjoyment & excitement
- A whole body feeling
- Purpose, meaning & structure
- A sense of expertise & control
- Purity, refinement, “rightness”, completeness, occasionally perfection!
The experience of absorption & preoccupation with a SPIN was compared to
- Infatuation, being in love
- Attachment, relationship, friendship
- Feeling at home, a secure base
- Transcendental, religious, spiritual feelings
Of course, like anything in life, SPINs can sometimes be associated with problems – neglect of other responsibilities, the pain of “running out of” SPINs, the frustration of not having access to a SPIN due to circumstances, the misunderstanding/criticism/ridicule one can experience…
But SPINs can be an overwhelmingly positive and nourishing part of an autistic person’ life, and are an essential aspect to explore in therapy with an autistic client. The client’s relationships with these “labours of love” should be explored just like any other important relationships, including their history – the joys and sorrows, what is still part of the client’s life, what has been lost (possibly due to masking), what can still be regained…
The therapy will definitely come to life!