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Navigating Neurodivergence: The Special Role of Special Interests in Overcoming Challenges



For autistic people, special interests are not merely a matter of personal preference; they are a vital component of our cognitive landscape. Analogous to the necessity of breathing for sustaining life, these interests play a fundamental role in maintaining our overall quality of life. They are intricately woven into the fabric of our existence, much like our DNA, providing a navigational map for the nuanced journey of our neurodivergent lives. Finding and engaging in these interests play an integral part in shaping the path to a rich and meaningful existence.


The Diverse Tapestry of Special Interests


Within the neurodivergent community, the spectrum of special interests is expansive, ranging from somewhat unusual subjects like bins and number plates to more complex fascinations, such as an enduring affinity for penguins. These interests serve as lenses through which we engage with and interpret the world around us.



Monotropic Thinking: The Cognitive Backbone


The significance of special interests in our lives is closely tied to our monotropic thinking—a distinctive cognitive style associated with neurodivergence. While neurotypical individuals often exhibit polytropic thinking, effortlessly managing multiple thoughts simultaneously, our monotropic thinking involves an intense concentration on one task or interest at a time. Special interests thus become focal points for our cognitive energies, allowing for profound focus and passion.


Distinguishing Monotropic from Polytropic Thinking


Understanding the distinction between monotropic and polytropic thinking is crucial to appreciating the cognitive differences between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals. Monotropic thinking is not a limitation but a unique cognitive style that facilitates deep exploration of our passions, something that can be extremely advantageous in the right conditions.


Building Connection through Sharing of Special Interests


Understanding the vast spectrum of special interests is key to building rapport with neurodivergent people. Whether it's engaging in conversations about our specific passions or expressing genuine interest, recognizing the significance of these interests can help to create meaningful connections. It's not just about tolerating these passions (we can see through that—depending on how deep into the infodump we have gotten) but appreciating them and respecting them as vital components of our identity.


The Power of Special Interests


My personal journey with overcoming the fear of snorkeling showed me the true power of special interests. On a cruise with my friend (an experienced free-diver), I wasn’t confident that I would be able to join her in experiencing the wonder of the underwater world while we were visiting islands.


Wearing a snorkel mask triggered immediate panic attacks for me, each attempt at breathing differently inducing a visceral fight-or-flight response. Despite repeated practice, success eluded me before the impending trip.


My fascination with sea life is deep-rooted. Growing up surrounded by underwater wonders—an uncle’s home adorned with aquariums in every room, another uncle well-versed in scuba diving, and a father that had no internet connection but an abundance of David Attenborough's documentaries—instilled in me an enduring passion for the mysteries beneath the waves.


Yet, it seemed my fascination with sea life was destined to be confined to screens and stories. As my friend and I set out for the first island on our trip, I held a confident uncertainty about dipping into the water.


However, it took nothing more than my friend's excited announcement of majestic sea turtles in our vicinity for me to reluctantly don the panic-inducing, weird-breathing mask and plunge my head under the waves.



At the sight of that turtle, all traces of panic and dread evaporated. I'm pretty sure I shed a tear in sheer amazement and wonder at this stunning creature gliding alongside me. At the time, I didn't fully grasp the profound shift, but in reflection, it's evident that my special interest and love for sea life managed to break through my fear, pulling me into a moment of glory as I found myself inches away from a magnificent creature, close enough to reach out and touch its speckled shell.


Harnessing Special Interests for Self-Support


I didn’t know it at the time, but by strategically integrating my passion for sea life into my quest to conquer anxiety, I turned a seemingly insurmountable challenge into a triumph. Demonstrating to me the potential for neurodivergent individuals to leverage their special interests as tools for self-support, using them as anchors in times of uncertainty and anxiety.



Embracing the Essence of Neurodivergent Experience


In the marriage of my special interest and the challenging waters of fear, I discovered a profound lesson – that the very passions which define us can also be instrumental in defying our fears. As neurodivergent people, our special interests are not just an escape; for within them lies the power to transform fear into curiosity, and anxiety into triumph.


Special interests are not mere distractions or fleeting hobbies for neurodivergent people; they are integral to our well-being and cognitive processes. By understanding the vastness of these interests, appreciating the importance of different ways of thinking, and utilizing special interests to build connections and self-support, we can foster a more inclusive and supportive environment for neurodivergent people.


So, the next time you encounter someone passionately discussing their unique interest, remember, you're not just glimpsing into a hobby; you're witnessing the heartbeat of their neurodivergent experience.





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