Restricted Interests and Personal Growth
by Brett Mulder, PsyD
Director, Teen and Adult Services
The COVID pandemic created a collective trauma for our cultures and societies. Mental health providers use the term “post-traumatic growth”; emphasizing the ways in which we can grow from what we go through by developing new perspectives, acquiring new skills, and reprioritizing what matters in our lives. Changes can emerge from the growth that occurs in response to trauma and lead to setting meaningful intentions. At the start of 2022, I set an intention to take up a hobby; embarrassingly the first time I’ve intentionally cultivated a hobby in my adult life. My experience with this new hobby has led me to reflect on what is a restricted interest.
Restricted interests are a hallmark feature of autism, involving a strong or intense interest in a topic or activity. It is one of the restricted and repetitive behaviors of autism. When there is significant difficulty transitioning away from a restricted interest, it can cause significant interference to a person’s daily functioning. At Aspire, we are aware of the challenges that can accompany a restricted interest and see that restricted interests are a gateway to developing authentic social connections with peers and can be spaces of meaningful exchange and personal exploration.
I approached developing a hobby with intention. One of the lessons I’ve learned from the pandemic is the importance of physical and mental health, and how the routines of a day are increasingly meaningful because they support habits and patterns of wellness. For example, the very first thing I do when I wake is a meditation on the app Insight Timer. This is the first, in a series of daily habits, that support my wellness throughout a day. I’d read about the importance of a hobby for mental health. I love fitness and, in the winter of 2022, decided to begin a hobby of paddle boarding.
Winter isn’t the best time to take up a water sport, but I was eager. I purchased a board, along with a wetsuit in January, and began watching the weather closely with the hope that ice on a nearby lake would melt and I could get out on the water for the first time. In late February, the weather was unseasonably warm in the low 60’s and enough to melt the ice. I excitedly got my wetsuit on and onto the water with my board. The wind had picked up and staying upright on the board became an immediate challenge. I persisted and while paddling into the middle of the lake, the wind whipped across the water and the waves grew. I lost my balance, plunging into the ice-cold water and accidentally knocked the fin off the board, sinking to the bottom of the lake. The shock of the water halted my breathe and I struggled back to the shore. On my first attempt I felt embarrassed, at my lack of skill weathering the demands of the moment, and humbled by force of nature. And immediately I fell in love; realizing that this activity could teach me a lot if I was willing to be open.
I bought a new fin and learned how to properly install it, along with paddling techniques from YouTube videos. And I began regularly getting out on the water after work or on the weekends. While on the water I began noticing shifts that would occur in my states of consciousness. With the repetitive motion of paddling, I would focus attention on the expansiveness of the lake around me and my thoughts would begin drifting away. As awareness began to expand, the self would begin to disappear and encounters with the landscape, trees, reflectiveness of the water, birds and turtles would become all that I was aware of. Being out on the water became a meditative exercise where the mind, as we typically conceive it, would dissipate and I would gratefully merge with nature. These experiences of oneness with nature were calming, grounding, and deeply restorative.
As my experiences with paddle boarding expanded, as did my passion for it. I would excitedly look forward to times when I could get out on the water; sometimes near sunset when the water would sparkle like diamonds or at the quiet of sunrise when the water could create a stunning mirror of the rising sun. I’d spend time watching YouTube videos of techniques or others paddle boarding; I’d ask my friends and family if they wanted to join me on the water. And at times I’d reflect on the question: what is a restricted interest? I could feel some anxiety and inflexibility that could emerge in me if I couldn’t get on the water after a certain period. A passion, gratitude for, and identification with the activity began to emerge. If I met anyone who shared an interest in paddle boarding, we had an immediate rapport.
Like many good questions, it has not gotten resolved for me. Where is the line between a hobby and a restricted interest? It’s something I continue to reflect on. It informs discussions at Aspire about how we can tap into these features of experience that, from one vantage point can be seen as a symptom of a disorder, and from another as gateways into some of the deepest and authentic aspects of ourselves and being.