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On Culture and Autistic Interests

Recently, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on autistic passions (including my own), how they form part of self-care, and how they fit into our cultural understandings of autism.

The first year of the pandemic reawakened my childhood obsession with Star Wars. I discovered and fell in love with Dave Filoni’s brilliant animated series: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. These shows take place in the period spanning from the fall of the democratic Galactic Republic to the early days of the rebellion against the authoritarian Empire, filling in the gaps between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. In these series, Filoni imagines young heroes who survive a violent rupture with the recent past, shed their old identities, and step bravely out into a strange new world, carrying very little. He tells stories about coming of age in dark times and the struggle to seek out connection, purpose and joy in the midst of overwhelming tragedy.

Less than a year before the start of the pandemic, I graduated from college by the skin of my teeth, moved permanently to the United States from South Africa, spent my first few months in the “real world” floundering, received a very belated autism diagnosis, and began trying to reimagine my future when, in March 2020, reality as it was started to collapse in on us. In the months to follow, I found hope in Filoni’s animated galaxy. I grew attached to characters who demonstrated resilience during a time of loss and uncertainty. Despite being fictional, they’ve given me something to try and live up to as I move through our own world.

In an excellent personal essay, “This Love,” autistic author Nell Brown explores our culture’s understanding of autistic interests. Reflecting on fictional representations of autistic people and their passions, Brown writes: “An autistic special interest was the centre of a character’s world, unchanging and singular; there wasn’t space for much else. Showing how an interest manifested— how it obstructed social relationships and disrupted the lives of those around the autistic person — was more common than any exploration of the experience of being interested in something.”

As Brown notes, we rarely consider autistic perspectives on autistic passions. Moreover, dominant cultural understandings of autistic interests are often limited. Many people seem to view autistic interests the same way they seem to view all autistic behavior — as inherently asocial and, oftentimes, lacking emotion; merely as symptoms or neurobiological tics, rather than as actions that carry potential for meaning, creativity and generativity.

Nell Brown points to some of these beliefs when reflecting on her love of Taylor Swift and identity as a “Swiftie.” She notes the irony of being an autistic person who is “intensely interested in a person, [and] part of a fandom that is derided as having too much feeling”: we are often seen as “robotic — unemotional or disconnected from humanity.” My own love for Star Wars Rebels originated in the series’ exploration of found family through its focus on a ragtag group of dissidents. I craved connection as a young adult living alone in a new city during the pandemic, and Rebels was a comfort. As pandemic restrictions have been lifted, my favorite characters have helped me gather courage to create connections that feel more authentic, and to intentionally occupy space in the world as a disabled person. What started as wish fulfillment became a bridge to something more.

My interest in Star Wars approximates (what are perceived as) non-autistic ways of being in so far as it orients toward connection with the social world, in so far as it is centrifugal rather than centripetal. But my love for Star Wars has multiple dimensions, and it also resembles a “special interest” in its stereotyped form. I’ve watched each episode of Rebels at least four times. (For context, the show has four seasons, each containing 16 episodes.) When I feel overstimulated, I find relief in the soundscape created by Ben Burtt — the hums, buzzes, blasts, and roars of the Star Wars galaxy — and in John Williams’s iconic score. The ache that has taken up residence in my jaw loosens, and my throat and chest open up again. In these moments, my experience of Star Wars is sensory rather than emotional, and I find comfort in repetition.

I don’t believe that one way of being interested in something is inherently more valuable than another, or that an interest is only worthwhile if it is “productive” or meets non-autistic expectations about how one should be in the world. It’s true that autistic interests can be consuming; the pleasure we get from our passions stops being part of self-care when it interferes with meeting our other needs and responsibilities. But helping an autistic person in your care to find balance is very different from discouraging their interests simply because the latter don’t fit in with your idea of time well spent.

I believe that our need to broaden our understanding of autistic interests points to a need for a more expansive understanding of who, what and which ways of being in the world are fully human, especially where disabled people are concerned.

In the early days of the pandemic, a dear friend shared the following quote from Arundhati Roy with me: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

The new world that Roy speaks of should be one in which disabled people are universally seen and treated as fully human. It’s a world I’m willing to fight for. Often, when planning my next move, I think of my favorite character, the wandering space samurai Ahsoka Tano. In my mind’s eye, Ahsoka leaps into the air, trademark determination on her face and twin lightsabers lit, poised to strike.

Nell Brown’s beautiful essay can be found in Stim, an anthology of autistic essays and art. Remi Yergeau, whose work is also linked in this blog post, is an autistic scholar, cunning rhetorician, and kind of my hero. Their recent book publication, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, examines and counters cultural narratives about autistic people.