Self care looks like “special interests”

My personal Instagram account is full of pictures of my garden. That’s pretty much all it is these days. I like Instagram, because it is a context in which people expect you to post images in themes or topics….. or, if we want to delve into pathologising my use of Instagram, “special interests”. 

Did you just cringe a little? Did saying my use of instagram is a “special interest” make you a little uncomfortable? I hope so.

My Instagram account is not unusual. There are plenty of other people who post solely about their gardens. Or chickens. Or horses. Or interiors. Or vintage homewares. Or rusty gate posts. Or whatever it is they love to take pictures of and share with other people who are also interested in the same things. For a while I posted pictures of fences and walls I like the look of.

Being interested in something and wanting to share that interest with others who also enjoy it is really acceptable. Instagram is a perfect example of it. Instagram has done a great job of normalising it in social media. It’s interesting. It’s fun. It makes up a part of many people’s self care activities. They take pictures and share them with others for the sense of happiness, wellbeing and community they gain from it. That is healthy, and it is not frowned upon.

So, why do we feel the need to look at an autistic persons self care activities and call them “special interests” in a tone that has a negative connotation?

Are you uncomfortable in a different way now? Did saying that an autistic person’s special interest is just a self care activity make you want to questions the validity of my thought processes on this topic?

Let’s look at it some more. Most days I will go out into my garden at some point to just be there. I also go out to feed and water chickens, weed and tend the garden, harvest food and other practical tasks. But I also love doing those things and will often end up losing track of time and staying longer than I probably should if I am going to get through other things I need to do. I will also usually take some photos while I am out there. Often these photos are actually photos I’ve taken before.I currently have over 100 images on my phone of the 10 sunflowers I grew this summer.I don’t know how many photos I have of my chickens. It’s probably more than 1,000.

If I forget to take my phone outside with when I go I feel really annoyed. I don’t want to go back to get it because someone might see me and ask me to do something that will interfere with going back outside to enjoy the garden and take photos. Sometimes I take a while to decide what to do- deal with the disappointment of not taking those this time, or risk being interrupted to go get the phone.

I’ve been known to sit out in the rain to watch chickens if I am not ready to go back inside yet. I have spent so long out there I have become badly sunburnt, but not come in even though I can feel it happening. I have gone out to the garden “for a minute” and forgotten to go pick up my kids from school (They were fine, I was only a few minutes late. And it hasn’t happened again, because I have an alarm on my phone now that reminds me when pick up time is).

pink and white rose

I probably spend more money than I should on my garden. I am often thinking of ways to improve it and make it better. It interrupts getting other things done. I get restless on days when the weather or other necessary tasks prohibits a good visit outside. If I have to do other things first, I look forward to going out all day. I enjoy it even if no one else is interested, but finding others who are interested makes it more exciting.

If I am stressed, I will go out to the garden for a while to regroup. If I am having trouble thinking something through I will sit and plan for the next thing I want to do in the garden and often my brain feels better and can process the other things once I have done that. If someone asks me about my garden, or my chickens, I can talk for ages about it. If you come to my house and notice the garden you are likely to get a long and animated monologue about it (I did this when the real estate agent was here last). If you ask me how my day was I am careful to not tell you what is happening in my garden because I know you probably didn’t mean that.

Does it sound like my garden is what you would call a “special interest”? If an autistic child was doing the things I do, would you call it a “special interest”?

To me, though, it is a hobby that provides opportunity for self care. It helps me feel better. It grounds me. It gives me pleasure. I feel productive when I engage in work in my garden. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I see my work producing food, life and beauty. It is good for me. It is self care. There is no need to give that a label that has a negative connotation.

When I realised this about myself it completely changed how I view my sons interest in spending time gaming online. When I acknowledged the benefits in my life of fostering this interest it helped me become comfortable with my daughter needing that new lego set now. That is not to say that he spends all his time online, or we go buy her the lego set immediately, or that I spend all day outside in the garden. Life is more than that. But we allow for those interests to be a part of our day without attaching anything negative to them.

There is no shame in needing to engage in self care. There is no shame in having “narrow interests” or “engaging in repetitive behaviours”. I do these things in my garden and nobody judges me for it. I love to stand and water the plants using a gently swaying motion. I love the feeling of pushing my fingers into the ground along the length of a weeds root to remove it. I love the feeling of nasturtium flower stems between my fingers and the pungent smell of them as I snap the stem to pick them. I love to forage around and find the plants my chickens love most to treat them with. I love to get close to the ground and look at the pumpkin vines from underneath. I love posting images of my garden to instagram because in that context it is completely socially acceptable to obsessively share pictures on the same topic over and over again, and there are others who enjoy it when I do.

Pumpkin vine
pumpkin vines from underneath

Please, don’t label valid self care activities as “special interests” and dismiss them as obsessive, unusual and unhealthy. It is important to accept them as healthy and useful ways of being, and to find contexts in which they are valued and can be shared with others who share the same loves.

For more excellent information about “special interests” please read

What’s so Special About a Special Interest?

An insider’s view of ‘Special Interests’

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