The 2nd thing that convinced me I had Asperger’s ('80s girls just wanna have libraries)

When I was sixteen, I became absorbed in a biography of Cleopatra. I also became obsessed with the doomed Romanov family of imperial Russia and devoured everything about them I could find, pre-Internet, in my high school library, even cutting class to huddle there for hours.

What 16-year-old girl does these things? One with Asperger’s, unbeknownst to me at the time.

I knew no one else my age who was into these things. I was aware that a female in my age group was supposed to be into makeup, clothes, boys, dating, school sports, Duran Duran, and fashion magazines.

I had had obsessions before, but they were more age-appropriate ones like TV and rock stars, the teen idol du jour.

Those particular historical fascinations would fade, only to continually be replaced by different ones. But it wasn’t enough for me to read about interesting people, places, and times. I had to fantasize that I actually was one of them, living in their world. When I was on the bus. In the classroom. Walking home from school.

While researching Asperger’s I came across this feature and mentally stopped dead in my tracks. “A fascination with a topic that is unusual in intensity and focus” was one of the core traits identified by Hans Asperger, the psychiatrist who discovered the disorder in children.

Leading Asperger’s authority Tony Attwood (Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome) noted that before the condition was categorized as autism in 2013, diagnostic criteria included an “encompassing preoccupation” with narrow interests characterized by exclusion of other activities.

If there hadn’t been incontrovertible proof to me up until that point, that clinched it. And here I’d thought I was the only kid in the world like this. Silly me.

And it has never stopped. Just a few years ago I was obsessed for a time with the Lincoln assassination. I went to 1865 and didn’t return for awhile.

A “normal” person absorbs themselves in a topic of interest, but when they put the book down (or the electronic device as it were), they get on with their day and become immersed in the here-and-now, the people and things around them.

For an Asperger’s, there essentially is no “here and now.” I believe, and experts have speculated, this is because the here-and-now is so unsatisfying, difficult, and even painful for us we have to escape from it. All the time.

So we create an alternate reality, a fantasy world where we can reinvent ourselves and fit in in a way we don’t in real life, as a coping mechanism.

A more constructive internalization of thoughts and feelings of being socially defective can be to escape into imagination. Children with Asperger’s can develop vivid and complex imaginary worlds … [where they] are understood and successful socially and academically.

The search is for a different world, in the past, present or future, that is an alternative to the world experienced by the person with Asperger’s. (Attwood)

This manifests itself as a fascination with people, places, or things. For me it was famous or historical figures and events; for others it’s technical or mechanical things; compiling lists or statistics; collecting, organizing, and categorizing anything from coins to baseball cards to dolls to Elvis memorabilia. The common feature is that the interest becomes all-consuming, isolating, even a substitute for relationships and friendships.

Of particular applicability to me: “The topic may not be age-appropriate and be somewhat unusual for a young child.” Conversely, an age-appropriate interest, such as a comic-book character or video games, may not fade or recede as it should when a kid enters adolescence or even young adulthood.

In the pre-teen and teenage years, the interests can evolve to include electronics and computers [little wonder some of the tech pioneers are believed to have had Asperger’s], fantasy literature, science fiction, and sometimes a fascination with a particular person or character, mythical, historical or real. That last one fit me to a T.

A fascination with morbid topics in particular is not unusual. No wonder then, that most of mine centered around famous tragedies; bad things happening to rich and famous people especially.

The young person acquires their knowledge independently, outside the classroom and the instruction of their parents. “The interest is chosen because of some aspect of it that is appealing or important to the child” and not because it’s trendy or what their peer group is into. (That sure described me.) The passion is pursued in a “solitary and intuitive” manner and can be either all the kid wants to talk about with everyone all the time, or as in my case, shared with no other soul in the world.

According to Attwood, kids and adults with Asperger’s can experience intense pleasure and enjoyment when engaged in their interest, which can be all-consuming, mesmerizing, and serve to block out negative emotions, a sort of “off-switch” on anxiety.

The escape mechanism becomes a problem when the person retreats into the alternative world for excessive periods of time, the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred, and they exclude other important activities from their life.

Under conditions of extreme stress or loneliness, the propensity to escape into an imaginary world … can lead to an internal fantasy becoming a ‘reality’ for the person with Asperger’s. The person may be considered as developing delusions and being out of touch with reality. More than a hobby, the special interest can dominate the person’s free time and conversation. (Attwood)

Attwood observed that the time and energy spent on the interest correlated with a person’s stress, anxiety, and lack of other escape outlets. If there are few other means of enjoyment, the interest can become a dominant and negative force in their life, even a form of OCD: “If the special interest is the exclusive source of relaxation or mental escape, then [it] can become an irresistible compulsion.” That was certainly the case with me.

Writes Theresa M. Regan in Understanding Autism in Adults and Aging Adults:

Intense preoccupation with certain thoughts and topics is common. The individual may demonstrate extreme attachment to certain activities and interests, such as watching the weather channel, reading books about Egypt, or crafting, to the extent that she forgets to attend to other activities such as self-care, relationships, and work activities. The individual may lack the ability to differentiate between a meaningful goal-directed activity and a repetitive time-consuming activity that has no purpose.

I recall as I approached seventeen, while in thrall to my Aspergian interests and in the abyss of clinical depression, I stopped caring what I wore to school or how my hair looked and often appeared disheveled, even wearing mismatching socks on at least one occasion. Classmates noticed. My grades slipped. Just a year prior, I’d become interested in makeup and fashion and looked to the world like most normal 15-year-old girls, at least on the outside. More than one teacher took me aside to inquire “if everything was alright.” One even remarked on how much weight I’d lost and how unhappy I appeared.

Also hitting close to home: The focus of the interest invariably changes and is replaced by another. Over time there is a progression to multiple and more abstract or complex interests such as periods of history, specific countries or cultures. Some children develop two or more simultaneous interests [which] increase with maturity. (Attwood)

It was incredibly freeing for me to finally understand my childhood and youth and what was going on with me the whole time.

As Attwood explains, some fortunate people with Asperger’s manage to channel their special interest into creative careers as fiction writers or visual artists, others into subject-matter expert type of work.

If I had known back then what I know now, I would have tried to find a way to parlay my obsessions into a profession as an historian, history teacher, or museum curator. But at the time, I had no tools at my disposal to do that and certainly no knowledge that my condition even existed. These things were an escape from reality, no more. I thought of myself as a freak, oblivious that there were possibly millions of others like me.

All photos courtesy of Creative Commons.

“Girl reading at the bus stop” by Super Furry Librarian is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“Library: The Millenium Library” by angelatin is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Filed under: Aspergers syndrome, Autism

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