Happy Autism Acceptance month everyone! So nice to read all of the positive posts about autism. I sometimes still have a hard time seeing the positive aspects of autism in myself, but there are at least a few that I am thankful for. I think my favorite one is hyperfocus. Hyperfocus (according to Urban Dictionary) is “a theoretical state of being or ability in which one is able to concentrate and focus on a particular subject so intensely, ultimately becoming oblivious to everything else around”. I do realize that this is not always a positive thing and has been a source of frustration for most people that have spent much time with me, but it has its upsides too.
I have been obsessed with things since I was very young. Everything from a soft blanket that I could not give up until I was way too old for that sort of thing, to dinosaurs, to the guitar, to martial arts, and to computer programming. By obsessed, I mean that I can focus on these things for very long periods of time, to the exclusion of everything else around me. It is not a choice and it is not something that I always want. It is like being a prisoner of my own brain and almost nothing can set me free. If someone is calling my name or if there is an external sound that I know is important, like a cat meowing or an alarm going off to tell me I have to do something, I can come back, but it is somewhat painful and leaves me in a very confused and uncomfortable state.
Look what a positive post this is! Okay, enough of that. It is not all bad and it is often magical and amazing. When I was first learning to play guitar, martial arts, coding, I could not grasp even basic concepts, though there was something about all of those things that kept me coming back.
With guitar, I was fascinated by the instrument and the way that the vibrations of the strings and the echo of the sound hole made such a wide variety of sounds and that those sounds could be controlled by holding down the strings in different ways. I learned some chords and could play basic songs, but they were stiff, for lack of a better word. I did not connect the sounds I was playing with music. It was all very mechanical. Still, that very mechanicalness was soothing to my brain. It was something to hold focus on that was strong enough to take me away from the chaos and colliding thoughts that were usually happening in my brain.
After a couple of years, I could do the mechanical things without thinking. It wasn’t until that point that I started to hear the music. I started listening to songs and playing along with them. At some point, I could hear a song in my head and envision playing it on the guitar. I actually started learning songs while I was sleeping or spacing out. When playing with other musicians and singers, I could listen to them and my part would almost play itself. I heard the guitar part in my head and my fingers just did it. Thinking was completely removed from the equation. That is where the magic happens.
Unfortunately, martial arts did not work in quite the same way, but it doesn’t matter. Like guitar, I love the mechanics of martial arts. I have been fortunate to have some really great teachers who have been able to explain the reasons for each technique. So much going on in even the simplest techniques. I have been doing martial arts of some kind or other for over 16 years. I do not have a black belt, although I do have a pretty large collection of brown belts. Still, it is not quite the same. My lack of short term memory makes it very hard for me to learn certain things. That, combined with the fact that I am not very athletic, somewhat clumsy, and have an annoying delay between thinking and acting, make it especially challenging. While all of those things make getting a black belt seem like a pipe dream, it doesn’t really matter. Doing martial arts, learning about the mechanics and history, and knowing that someday, some of what I have learned might help myself or someone else escape a bad situation is enough. I look forward to it and it makes me happy. You can’t ask for much more than that! Still, I wouldn’t turn away a black belt.
Coding. Programming. It doesn’t matter what you call it. Code is beautiful to me. It makes sense in a way that nothing else does. Whether the code is good or bad, no matter what language it is written in, it will make sense, even when it doesn’t work. You can troubleshoot code in a way that you can not troubleshoot other things. Line by line, file by file; somewhere is the answer. You can not parse people that way. For some reason, this does not seem to bother most people, but it is a thing that has exhausted and confused me for as long as I can remember. Hyperfocus is an escape from that.
Illogical things make my brain explode. Hyperfocus puts the fragments back together. I know there are many people who hyperfocus on things that are not logical, but I think it is often in search of logic. I used to be somewhat obsessed with World War II and read everything I could find that might explain what could make people do the horrible things that were done. I actually found many answers. I wish I didn’t. Frames of logic differ from person to person. That particular obsession did not make me less confused, but it gave me a frame of reference as to how such horrible things could actually happen. It also taught me that things are not as black and white as “logical = good, illogical = bad”. People can do horrible things that seem completely logical to them, and people can do amazingly kind and heroic things with actions that defy logic.
While hyperfocus has had its ups and downs for me, I think it is something that is needed in this world. It is the thing that allows people to tear things apart and break them down to their core components, until something finally makes some sense. Autistic people are not the only ones who experience it, but it seems to be one of the most common threads all along the spectrum. It is a valuable ability, no matter whether or not people can communicate verbally or hold down a traditional job or assimilate into cultural “norms”. It is a way to go beyond the “box” in order to think outside of it. It is a way to question the reason that the box exists at all.