Re: Love and Fiction

A reply post exploring the connection between autistic "special interests" and love interests

“I feel like this is common for autistic people, actually - the idea that our special interests and our deepest desires for other people occupy some of the same brain circuits. Finding a new special interest feels a little like falling in love to me, and falling in love feels like finding a new special interest.”

The words above in a post by Ada Hoffmann resonated so strongly with me I wanted to make a reply post. In that paragraph, Ada has captured something that I’ve never been able to articulate before but that makes perfect sense to me now that I am becoming conscious of autism. As I reflect on my recent autism diagnosis, two things I’ve been thinking about are special interests and challenges around feelings, especially love. The way Ada connects these two aspects of autism makes perfect sense to me (though my experience of it is quite different from Ada’s). 

My patterns with both special interests and with relationships with other people have been similar (especially in my younger years) - intense, deep, and completely immersive. And when they end, they end fully and completely. When I lose interest in something I’ve been deeply engrossed in, I want to completely abandon it, forget about it, leave it behind. Similarly, when relationships I’ve had have ended, my instinct is to sever all ties. I can’t “remain friends”, not even on Facebook. I have memories that occasionally pop up in my mind. Old photos of past loves, or memorabilia of past hobbies, or songs that I associate with a certain time period, trigger an ingrained fondness and make me smile. But I never go back to it, never try to resurrect my interest in something - be it a person or an activity or some other hobby. 

When I was a senior in high school, I got into ska music. I didn’t just listen to a lot of ska music, I became completely obsessed. I would listen only to ska music - if music wasn’t ska I would proclaim it to be inferior and refuse to listen to it. I started dressing the way I thought ska people dressed - trying to adopt (and failing) the uniform of the early eighties British ska bands (polo shirt, suspenders). I researched the history of ska music and started digging up recordings of Jamaican ska bands from the 60s. I started a zine devoted to ska music, going into my dad’s office on weekends to use the copy machine, and I started a radio show devoted to ska music. I interviewed almost every notable ska band active in America at the time, including some big names like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt (I hung out with Gwen Stefani and the rest of the band in their hotel room in Albuquerque for hours after their concert at a local bar, on the eve of them becoming genuine rockstars with the release of the song “Just a girl”). I was sending my zine out to hundreds of readers across the country - people who were as deeply into ska as I was, who had found out about me and my zine through the network of zines and touring bands that stitched the community together in those days before the internet was a thing. 

Then I went off to college. In the new context, with so much else rushing through my mind, I lost interest. I just stopped. I started listening to other things. I found that other people didn’t share my interest and thought it was a bit weird. I started to think of my fascination with ska music as an immature, ill considered phase of someone who didn’t really understand music. I remember one of the readers of my zine - someone in the middle of the country who I had never met but whom I had corresponded with a few times - called me because she wanted to tell me something (I can’t remember what it was now, but something about ska apparently). I remember the conversation being strange and awkward, I had essentially no interest in what she was talking about. I realized that the magic was gone for me - I just didn’t care.  It was as if ska music and I had broken up.

Ending my relationship with ska was a relief. I felt liberated to listen to other music, to acknowledge and explore other things. I felt free to point out the flaws in a lot of the music I had listened to so many times, to realize that just because something was ska didn’t mean it was good. I felt the sense of the world of possibilities opening up for me, like I was just at the beginning of so much potential. I could stop wearing those silly clothes. I could stop being so judgemental about what was and wasn’t in my narrow window of acceptable music. I could stop acting like someone I really wasn’t. It was a great feeling. Now, almost a quarter century later, I still have all those CDs, LPs, and EPs. Many of them I’ve digitized. Once every few years I listen to just one song, and I enjoy it, and it makes me smile.

In terms of romantic relationships, I didn’t have any of those in high school - that wouldn’t happen for me until I was 20 years old. In high school I had failed to find friends and would mostly hang around a group of girls, several of whom I’d known since we were toddlers. I felt as if I was friends with some of them, but I didn’t really feel part of their group, and I only had a vague sense of what friendship was. Most of them were into drama. They took the drama class and acted in the school plays. They seemed to tolerate me hanging around them at lunch time. I think at that point, anything that wasn’t overt rejection felt like a warm, welcoming embrace. 

At some point I started to fall in love with one of them. Her name was Sarah. At least, I thought I was falling in love with her. I didn’t know what love was or what people did when they fell in love. But I felt like if I was spending so much time with a bunch of young women, the “normal” thing for me to do would be to fall in love with one of them. I don’t think I would say I became obsessed with Sarah, but I thought about her a lot. I would look at her all the time (you could call it staring but I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing). In class, at lunch, after school, I would seek her out just to look at her. I didn’t have the courage to talk to her much directly at school, but I started calling her in the evenings. I didn’t know what you were supposed to say on calls like that, so after we asked each other how we were doing (I was incredibly bad and unpracticed at small talk) I would ask her if she wanted to “go out” some night that weekend. The first several times she was so nice about it that I didn’t really feel like she was saying no, and it certainly didn’t feel like a rejection, it just seemed like there was a legitimate reason why she couldn’t say yes. And so I would call again a few nights later. And again. And again. Every time I would ask the same question, “I was wondering if you’d like to go out some time?” And every time I would come away without a plan to go out with her (I had no idea what we would do if she had said yes, but that seemed like something it was safe to figure out later because the chances of it happening were so remote). 

I can’t remember how long this went on for, but it was a long time. Months and months. Almost a whole school year, maybe.  In retrospect, my interest in Sarah was similar to my interest in ska, or any other “special interest” of my life. I just wanted to think about her; other things were not interesting to me at the moment. Every day in school I would look at her, try to exchange a smile, thinking that we may be on the verge of having “a relationship”. She would appear in school plays and I would watch from the audience, so proud of her and imagining that this incredible woman might be someone that I could go out with someday. And every day she would avoid me, ignore me, not make eye contact, not say anything. Perhaps I felt like I was exploring a challenging new hobby - like learning an instrument. The fact that it was hard didn’t deter me. It never occurred to me that she was trying to “give me a hint.” She was so friendly on the phone that I didn’t understand she was trying to send me the message that she would never be saying, “yes, I’d like to go out with you this weekend”. In every brief, awkward interaction I had with her, I would feel that she left the door open to a possible “yes” in the future. That is, she never said, “Please stop calling me. I don’t want to go out with you.” And anything shy of that, I figured, was a sign of hope for the next time I would call. (I’ve since learned that it’s somewhat common for autistic people to have trouble picking up on hints - that direct language is required in order to have the intended effect). 

I didn’t realize that Sarah talked to all the others in the group about my strange phone calls when I wasn’t around. I didn’t understand that everyone else knew what was happening and thought I was a weirdo. Finally, one night, she called me. When my mom said I had a phone call I couldn’t believe it. The phone rang and it was for me? That hadn’t happened much since playdates in elementary school. On the phone her voice was as sweet and gentle as ever as she asked me how I was. Then she said, “I’m not sure what this is all about, but I just wanted you to know that I’m not really looking for anything from our relationship other than friendship right now.”

As she spoke those words I felt a huge sense of relief. First, she said we have a relationship! In the moment I thought that meant she actually considered me to be a friend, which would be more than I was counting on. I don’t think her intention was to actually offer me her friendship so much as it was to get me to leave her alone, but I took it as an offer. “That sounds really nice,” I think I said, “I’d like that a lot.” And as those words came out of my mouth they felt true to me. It would be nice to be friends, to have her as a friend. I emerged from the kitchen pantry, where my brothers and I would stretch the phone cord for privacy, and hung up feeling somehow content.

And so my obsession with Sarah ended, just like my obsession with ska would end. I felt relieved and free. I could stop calling and calling, hoping for a clear answer. I could think about other people, other things. I didn’t have to go to all her plays, as if she ever cared if I was in the audience. I could even, maybe, eat lunch someplace else, with a different group, or just on my own. I didn’t know it yet, but my interest in Sarah would soon be replaced by an interest in someone else, just like my interest in ska would be replaced with a new hobby that I could get into with equal fervor. 

I was moved to write about these episodes of my past after reading the paragraph from Ada that I started with. As I explore these memories through writing, I realize that there is a lot more to say and to uncover here. Thinking about how my special interests and my “deepest desires for other people occupy some of the same brain circuits” has helped me reflect on how this idea of “special interests” has manifest in my life and what it illustrates about the way my brain works can be carried over into my relationships (or lack of relationships) with other people. I’m happily married now, and a father, and I think that has changed many things for me, which is also another aspect to explore. 

So, thank you Ada for the inspiration! I’ll have more to explore on this topic soon.

Everything Is True
Love and Fiction
When I was younger, I used to worry that I didn't do romantic love correctly, because it only made sense to me when it was half fictional. I feel like this is common for autistic people, actually - the idea that our special interests and our deepest desires for other people occupy some of the same brain circuits. Finding a new special interest feels a li…
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