If I didn’t have autism, would my encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs be a problem?

Some models of autism frame special interest as something unsettling and obsessive. This is an unfair double standard

You have to understand: no five-year-old knows more about dinosaurs than I did.

It’s also possible that no five-year-old on earth has marched confidently into Brashs (tailed by a willing adult) to purchase the 12” single of Was (Not Was)’s Walk the Dinosaur, my first ever record. Did I know – or care – that it was a Reagan-era meditation on a certain nuclear apocalypse? No: it had “Dinosaur” in the title, in the lyrics and on the cover, and that was enough for me.

I listened to Walk the Dinosaur on repeat while arranging my Invicta British Museum of Natural History plastic dinosaur replicas in various orders: first by height, then by colour, then by order of their extinction.

From the archetypal autistic child who can’t stop talking about Thomas the Tank Engine to the “aspie” who monologues about obscure systems analytics, circumscribed or “special” interests are a cornerstone of autism. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they are perhaps its most well-known manifestation: your layperson’s understanding of autism may very well include the idea that an autistic person is usually overly interested in something a bit offbeat, be it trains, obscure Star Trek languages, or collecting bread bag tags. The clinical literature often refers to the types of domains that special interests can fall in as “non-social”, which seems like a polite way of saying “you don’t make friends with steam train engine facts”.

Take, for example, five-year-old Clem. It’s true that a lot of kids go through a “dinosaur phase”, but mine was a love that was deep and pedantic. Like most kids, I can’t remember what set off my love of dinosaurs, but unlike most kids, the fervour of my love for the extinct beasts was unrelenting: dinosaurs were my first “special interest”.

Australian author Clem Bastow. Photograph: Kristoffer Paulsen

It was a good time to be “getting into” dinosaurs. In the mid-80s, the so-called dinosaur renaissance that had been building since the 60s was hitting its peak: paleontological books were no longer dusty library books that smelled like egg-farts, but bestselling paperbacks with embossed covers and witty illustrations. Perhaps you saw Jurassic Park in 1993 and were delighted at the sight of little Tim clutching his hefty dinosaur book and going off about having read “this book by a guy named Bakker”. Well, back in 1987 I was trying to convince the teacher checking my MS Readathon tally sheet that I – the kid who refused to read the Spot books we were assigned – had, in fact, read Dr Robert T Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies … all 481 pages of it. (Are you kidding? I’d already read it three times by then.)

Here was a book that dared to suggest that dinosaurs were, in fact, warm-blooded; the T-rex suddenly became much scarier when considering Bakker’s speculation about the apex predator being able to gallop at speed. (Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.) But you will be amazed to discover that most children in Grade 2 at St Joseph’s Primary School didn’t especially want to expound upon what made The Dinosaur Heresies such a revolutionary work.

A deficit model of autism frames special interest as something unsettling and obsessive. Why, countless parenting blogs ask, does my son sit for hours reading about the Tube? Why is my daughter constantly telling me about the mating habits of the green sea turtle?

It is considered odd to engage with one’s (autistic) passion for hours, rejecting food, socialisation and sleep. And yet, on the other hand, we can observe neurotypical neoliberal fantasies of mastery that essentially present the same behaviours (stripped of autistic context) as aspirational, such as Malcolm Gladwell championing the 10,000 hours one is supposed to sink into a topic in order to become an “outlier”, or a prodigious talent, as described in his 2008 book, Outliers.

Photograph: Hardie Grant Books

All sorts of “disruptors” and “thought leaders” invoke Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow state – the complete absorption in an active task at hand, with no attention paid to anything else – as a way to achieve greatness. The Hungarian–American psychologist began his research into flow in the mid-70s, and in a 1996 interview he described the state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

(Like so many nightmares of late capitalism, I think it’s safe to say that Csikszentmihalyi’s research has been somewhat repurposed by corporations and brands as another way to increase productivity and “engagement”; he considered flow state integral to happiness, as opposed to triumph within neoliberal employment structures.)

Spending all day and night consumed in an activity or interest at the expense of time/sustenance/sleep suddenly sounds familiar, does it not? The issue is that when we autists are tuning into our own personal jazz odysseys – putting in our 10,000 hours on Klingon geopolitics – our attention and involvement is presented as a problem to be solved.

I am not the first autistic person to make the connection between flow and special interests, and clinicians have also noted the similarities. Just as Csikszentmihalyi’s theories have been purloined by capitalism – flow state as a way to improve productivity – so too have some suggested that autistic people’s special interests could be channelled into employment possibilities. Consider the ancient neurotypical proverb, “Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never work a day in your life”. It is true that many autistic people do find work that aligns with their special interests, but the danger in “employifying” special interests lies in presenting that as the ultimate way for autistic people to have value for society.

Anyway, I could never have become a palaeontologist, because I hate the feeling of dirt on my hands.

This is an edited extract from Late Bloomer: How an Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life by Clem Bastow, out now through Hardie Grant













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