This is discussed in my book The Shyness Guide, and I think I’ve written about it here before too, but I’ve got to do it again.
I’m sceptical of the some of the criteria used to define autism. Though I have no problem with impairments in language and social-interaction, this idea of “restricted activities and interests” as a fundamental symptom, and problem, really gets under my skin.
For example, this includes the once fairly common habit of reading phone books. I used to think I didn’t read phone books, but one day, reading autistic writer Donna Williams’ book Nobody, Nowhere, I came upon her explanation of why she found phone books enriching, and I realized that I’d been reading them all my life.
Whenever I looked up a personal phone number in the ‘white pages’ (now of course I use the internet), which I did often in 40 years of investigation work, I was never able to resist examining the other names on the page. Not only did I find out how many people with the same surname lived in the city, but, in Toronto where I lived, the phone book included their addresses, so I could make a mental map of where those people lived. Were they all close together, or were they scattered through the city? I also found things like the changes in spelling of different surnames and/or the resemblance of different surnames to each other interesting.
The same thing happened when I looked up a word in the dictionary. I always had to examine other words on the page, again searching for patterns and relationships. I learned a lot about words that way, maybe one reason that I developed writing skills from an early age, despite difficulty talking.
But tell a psychologist that you read phone books or dictionaries and they’ll start to worry about you.
How does this fall into “restricted activities and interests”?
Well, if you read the literature, you’ll find that psychologists seem to consider any obsession with a subject to the exclusion of others, especially to the exclusion of interest in social inter-action, to be a “restricted activity and interest”.
When I was a boy, as soon as I could read fluently – age 7 maybe – I read every book I could find in the library about fish, to the exclusion of everything else. When I couldn’t find more of them, I switched to mammals, then to insects, then to trees, etc etc – meanwhile always ignoring the conversations of my talkative peers about TV shows, NHL hockey, and their schoolyard fights with one another. That, it seems, was another example of “restricted activities and interests”.
In her book Autism: An Introduction to Psychological Theory, psychologist Francesca Happé tells of a boy riding a train with his classmates; while they were all talking about ‘ball games’,all he wanted to talk about was how trains switches. This, she says, was diagnosed as part of “right hemisphere dysfunction,” but she wondered if he might have been a candidate for Asperger’s. (Though Happé wrote that book in 1994, it remains my #1 go to book for autism, for she had a broad in autism research into what she called “this fascinating disorder).
As soon as I read that, I asked myself, “Did no one notice that they were riding on a train, so the boy was directly interested in the immediate world around them, more than his classmates?”
The fact that in the process of indulging your obsession you may learn far more about the world than your peers do watching TV, or talking to each other, doesn’t seem to matter.
Why is there so much resistance to independent thinking, which, in my experience, requires some social separation?
I suppose the five years Charles Darwin spent on the Beagle, so completely focused on the animals he encountered and studied as the ship traveled around the world, would qualify as ‘restricted activity and interests’. Never mind that it resulted in the ground-breaking theory of natural selection. I suspect Einstein wouldn’t have come up with his famous theories if he hadn’t ‘suffered’ from restricted activities and interests.
Psychologist Hans Asperger, one of the ‘discoverers’ of autism, didn’t see this characteristic as pathological. He said the autistic children who he studied were like ‘little professors’ in their ability to talk about a favorite subject. His term for the “restricted activity and interests” was the more benign “intense absorption in a special interest”.
Well, I’m with him, all the way. Though I’m 76 years old now, I can’t walk over a bridge without stopping to study the creek or river below it for the elusive forms of fish.