This post is in the Special Interests category

Special interests in autism can be very narrow, obscure and unproductive, taking huge amounts of time and energy from learning or working. Some of these can be channelled into useful skills, or become an intense hobby that a person can derive satisfaction from outside an otherwise difficult day-to-day life.

Imagine a small child playing in the sand. He is calm, satisfied and completely absorbed. He does not hear his mother call him to leave. She picks him up and removes him from the sandpit. The child screams, perhaps lashes out, forcing his mother to put him down. He runs, crying, back to the sand and returns, instantly, to his activity, once again calm and absorbed.

This is the behaviour of a child, but it is important to remember that autism is a developmental condition. The ability to switch activities, to be flexible with thought and behaviour, normally develops as the child grows, along with understanding of how his activity affects others. In autism, this development is slower and may not occur at all.

Tony Attwood (2008, pp. 177-187) suggests that the special interest can serve several functions for a person with autism, including relief from anxiety or stress (because it is a “known quantity”) pleasure (stimulation), creation of alternative worlds, helping to find coherence, such as when collecting and categorising, and to help form a sense of identity (I AM a musician, mathematician, expert).

An obsessive interest in music and sound is not uncommon. Any successful musician, and many unsuccessful ones, knows that music is something that “owns you”. Sachs also points out that music has become so ubiquitous in the life of the average westerner that it is very difficult to avoid (Sacks, 2008, p. 31) and the human mind is extremely susceptible to music, thus our modern lifestyle is increasing obsessive musical behaviour.

At the risk of opening up a can of worms, the intention of this page is to draw a distinction between what is a common experience – a necessary one for musicians – and the manifestation of an autistic “special interest”. For most musicians, music is something that they want to do, that they have a passion for and derive affective pleasure from. The implication is that music for a person with heightened autistic traits can have elements of an involuntary behaviour that brings pleasure solely through participation, and that impacts on functioning outside the musical life, and that require management. I also wish to reiterate that each of these traits exist on a continuum, and they can and do vary in intensity over time.

The DSM-iv Asperger criteria on special interests is a somewhat vague “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Music is not, to my mind a stereotyped pattern of interest, but its processes can contain such elements. The key here is the abnormal intensity or focus.

The Gillberg criteria is somewhat more explicit (Gillberg, 1989). I have applied some of my own experiences and observations to the excerpts below. From my own point of view, there is much about music and sound that I love, but the line between that love and resentment is sometimes a fine one.

  • All-absorbing narrow interest (at least one of the following)
    • exclusion of other activities
      • This is NOT an expression of preference, eg. I play the piano rather than soccer. If your musical activity regularly stops you eating, sleeping, working, socialising or forming relationships, it may be more focussed and intense an interest than is normal or healthy.
    • repetitive adherence
      • Practicing a phrase until you get it right is a choice, made on a rational basis. Continuing to repeat it for an hour AFTER it is perfect may not be. Tweaking a drum loop for an hour while the guitarist is waiting to record may also fit this.
    • more rote than meaning
      • As above, when the synth bass sound is “right” it would be more appropriate to record it than keep playing a single note and listening to the filter envelope
  • Imposition of routines and interests (at least one of the following)
    • on self, in aspects of life
      • Mentally rehearsing or composing music through the day would seem to be a fairly normal activity for a musician. For the most part this is a conscious task. The inability to stop the process is less normal. A person who is reclusive, shut in a bedroom with a guitar or a studio with a computer, with no income and unable to use the skills to generate one, may be in the thrall of an unproductive special interest, even if the skills themselves are at a very high level. Attwood indicates that such interests are frequently self taught, solitary and intuitive and not shared with others (Attwood, 2008, p. 176)
    • on others
      • Being able to do a series of lectures to students on sound synthesis techniques is an indication of interest and acquired expertise. Imposing that knowledge on your family at the dinner table goes beyond that. Missing the last train home because the studio drum session ran over time is an occupational hazard. Missing the train four nights in a row when you are composing for yourself is imposing your special interest on your wife and family.

A Special Interest in music is certainly useful to a musician, but there is a sinister side that can lead to hating the thing that you love.

One Response to “Music as a Special Interest”

  1. Kathy says:

    Yes, so much of this resonates

Leave a Reply