Sunday, 28 February 2016

'The Autism Spectrum: Interests

by Jack Rockett

The first railway built in the world was between Stockton and Darlington that opened in 1825. After this, railways were rapidly constructed across the whole country until there were over 100 railway companies and 29000km of railway. In 1921, the railways were merged into four companies and then in 1948, they were nationalised and British Rail was founded. However, during the 1950s Beeching ripped apart the railway network and so now less that two thirds remains. The next big change to the railways was in the late 1990s when the whole system was privatised into over 20 companies as it stands today. Today there is still over 15000km of railway in the United Kingdom of which about 5000 is electrified but this is set to increase massively over the next 20 years. Although you are probably thinking that this has nothing to do with the Autism Spectrum, it is one of the reasons why I know so much about trains and why I am so fascinated by them. Everyone on the autism spectrum has an interest that quite quickly sucks them in and they have to find out everything about it. For me, it is clearly trains and as a result, I can map out all of the railways in Great Britain and I know all of the changes that are going to happen to our railway network in the next 25 years.

Along the autism spectrum, people at different levels of functioning usually develop different interests. Many nonverbal people on the autism spectrum have far more particular interests and usually develop a certain activity that they find very fascinating and calming that they will do all the time. These usually involve things that neurotypical people find very odd like spinning a wheel or stacking cans which may seem very boring at the surface but for these people, doing these activities is highly important for keeping them calm. For people who are higher functioning like me, it is common to have a very deep interest with a certain subject which may change over time but could equally become a lifelong interest. I first got interested in trains when I started getting the train to school back in 2009 when I was in year 7 and the way in which all of the railway and train companies were organised across the country fascinated me immensely. I like how the railways on maps were neatly laid out and how all the different companies blended together and got obsessed with learning where all of the railways in the country are.

Of course neurotypical people can develop very deep interests but they are usually broader and lead onto other things and they can easily leave an activity related to the interest without feeling uncomfortable unless they are trying to meet a deadline etc. Interests for people on the Autism Spectrum are usually seen more as a way to enter their own world and a way of getting rid of stress. When I have what feels like 500billion things that I need to do, I will very quickly find myself laying on the sofa or my bed researching what changes are being made to railways around the world or reading something about a subject that interests me at the time. Even though I won’t get any of the things done, after I do feel far less stressed because I have been able to do something I enjoy and it helps me to be more relaxed which makes it easier to do what I need to do.

This is the main trait from which people on the Autism Spectrum achieve the most out of their life. Their special interest is usually a massive help for getting into university or getting a job in a specific area of work and it is the main reason why some people on the Autism Spectrum become very skilled and successful in their chosen field. Because of the high quantity of information that I know about trains, and the fact that they interest me so much, it was very easy to write about why I wanted to study civil engineering at University on my personal statement. Writing it became very easy as for half of it I could just talk about something that I love. Also my tutor said that it was one of the best personal statements that he had ever seen and I got offers from all 5 of my university choices. 

However, with everything about the autism spectrum, there are always people who find negatives in their child's interests instead of strengthening them. Many parents say that they worry that their child only talks about one specific topic or that they repeatedly do the same thing for hours. They usually have the desire to prevent their children from doing their favourite activity which usually leads to the child getting very frustrated and distressed and therefore they will become more sensitive to everything as their method of calming themselves down has been removed. This can also lead to the child not being able to cope with the world around them and then less likely to be able to contribute to society later on as their method of understanding it can no longer happen. Obviously this is a very bad idea so instead of parents trying to get their child to 'fit in', which will never work, they should instead make sure that it is possible for their child to engage in their repetitive activity at any time and support their love for one specific subject and get them to use that passion later on in life.

With people who just have a very specific interest, the perception from neurotypical people is usually either that the person is incredibly smart and that it is amazing how they can know all of that information about  this one topic. This is usually highlighted when the person with Autism does a project on their specific interest and people get amazed at the amount of detail and the enthusiasm that they have for the topic. This happened to me at the end of last year when I found out that I have been shortlisted for the ithaka prize for my amazing PGS Extend. Of course I did it about trains which really helped me to get motivated to do it and also enjoy doing it. I drew three massive maps of our rail network: present, 25 years from now and how it should be and would be if I were the head of network rail, as I also love drawing maps and it was the perfect combination for me to display what I found out. I’ve constantly had people telling me how amazing they are and they are usually very surprised at how quickly I was able to draw them. I just now need to present it in a way that makes me sound really interested but also interesting, which is the far harder part, so that I can win.

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