How my obsessions saved me and why I don’t need a cure


Madeleine Ryan

There’s a lot of power in what gives us joy. The New York Transit Museum recently created an after-school program called Subway Sleuths for autistic children who love trains. The initiative helps them to develop social skills and leadership abilities through their shared interest.  

It’s believed that many individuals on the spectrum possess what has been called “special interests”, “obsessions'” ‘savant skills’, ‘must do’s’ or preoccupations with ‘specialist subjects’. Often, these are thought to revolve around things like transport, bus timetables, number plates, phone books, statistics, engineering, Lego and Disney, because the interests and abilities of autistic boys and men have shaped the definition that we have of autism.

At best, these can be viewed by people unfamiliar with autism as impressive, pleasing, or humourous eccentricities. At worst, they’re seen as dangerous  – the sort of obsessions that get in the way of living a “normal”, happy, balanced life.

Only in the past few years has this has begun to shift, and the differences to be found in autistic girls and women are beginning to emerge. 

I have autism and my special interests go something like this. Swap a love of trains with a love of self-help books, and trade bus timetables for fashion magazines. Replace number plates with numerology, phone books with astrology, statistics with exercise, engineering with acupuncture, Lego with Barbie, and Disney with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Although I wasn’t officially diagnosed as autistic until last year, my parents have always supported these interests. And I see now that their doing so helped me to survive kindergarten, primary school, High school, University, acting school and working life. 

Mum and dad may not always have been comfortable with my need as a ten-year-old to carry dad’s letter opener around because it looked like a stake and I was concerned about running into vampires; nor could they comprehend my insistence that our communication breakdowns were because of Mercury being retrograde; and I sensed that the bruises I received from cupping occasionally made them question my judgement (that is, before they received cupping and reaped the benefits themselves). 

They didn’t always understand me, or my interests, even if they knew that respecting and appreciating them was fundamental to creating a sustaining and healthy relationship as a family. 

This encouragement trickled into every aspect of my life. Allowing my special interests to blossom affected how I developed relationships with men and with women and, ultimately how I have developed a relationship with myself. 

Rather than identifying with a disability – which for a long time I didn’t even know I had – I have identified with what I love, which has enabled me to face life’s challenges with a grace and sense of self I wouldn’t have possessed otherwise.

I’ve never been on medication for anxiety or depression, which are common alongside autism. When I shared this with the doctor that assessed me, she was surprised. “Meditation not medication,” I laughed. She didn’t.

Each of us is a matrix of needs and desires that I’m not going to try and simplify here. I don’t have all the answers to functioning as an autistic person in society, although I do know that embracing my special interests has helped me to survive. As tangible and easy as it would be to credit Louise Hay, kale, and an acupuncturist with this, deep down I know that the reason I am able to endure in this world is because my special interests are sacred to me. 

Coming to know them, and having them embraced by others  – or not, in some cases, which I have learned to forgive – has been more powerful and more rewarding than any prescription medication could ever be.

Joy is the best motivator and healer in the world, even if my level of discipline and focus sometimes frightens people, or puts them off. I am my special interest and, unfortunately, not everyone is interested in me – or in themselves – to the same degree. However, if autistic children and adults spend time doing what they love, only good can come of it for them, for their families and for the community. 

Our passions are a part of us. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we live, or our age. And if there’s an answer or cure or remedy to the pain and frustration that can go with the sensitivities of autism, it has to be celebrating what gives us joy – because I don’t know where or who I would be without it.



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