Autism and Special Interests

I don’t have a diagnosis yet – the area I live in had a 2-year waiting list before the Covid pandemic, so it will be much longer currently. That said I have an Autism Quotient-50 (AQ-50) score that puts me well into the “has significant levels of autistic traits” range and I have passed all the initial screening tests used by my GP and the NHS Autism Service in the area I live with flying colours. Also my teenage daughter (AKA mini-me) has been recommended for autism assessment by her CAMHS psychologist and she doesn’t have anywhere near the number of meltdowns I have or as high an AQ. If I walk like an autistic person and talk like an autistic person, perhaps I really am autistic.

I also have interests. Special interests. I’ve always been a massive nerd. I was good at physics at school. Really good. Like 97.5% on my physics A level mock (the previous year’s paper), good. And obviously I like astronomy and cosmology and astrophysics and rocket science and …

But I nearly did A level Latin and an AS in Classical Greek rather than A level Chemistry and GCSE Statistics.

I very nearly applied to study Classics at university rather than Physics. But I come from a family where my parents don’t even have A levels and where people didn’t go to university. Where great aunts at weddings would be rude to me for having ideas above my station and not studying hairdressing at college like their granddaughters. Besides what job can you do with a degree in Classics? (Turns out if you went to Eton, the answer is Prime Minister, but never mind.) So I did Physics at Imperial, about which the less said is probably better.

I’d forgotten how much I used to love learning at school until I did my Astronomy master’s with Swinburne University. And I’d forgotten what a rush it was to get stupidly high marks (98.75% for a master’s dissertation anyone?). I tried for a couple of funded Astronomy/Astrophysics PhDs locally, because well, why not. But I didn’t get them and I’m glad really. If I’d have gone down that path I’d have probably felt obligated to go down the perpetual post-doc route, which is neither healthy for an autistic, needs-things-not-to-change person nor a guarantee of a reliable income. And I didn’t realise then, because my discovery of my many autistic traits follows my applications for funded PhDs, but I need to pursue special interests to keep myself sane. There is plenty of research to suggest that I need to be involved in doing my special interests the way neurotypical people need social interaction. So if doing an Astronomy PhD turns out to be a really rubbish way of pursuing my special interests, I need to find a way that works for me, not against me.

And back to the Classics. Because an education involving the study of Latin and Greek is really useful for Historians of Astronomy. Right now I am deep in Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s De caelo and I’m loving it. And going forward in time, knowledge of Latin becomes vital for understanding medieval scientific scholarship, for which it was invariably the lingua franca of the period. Much of Johannes Kepler’s writings have still not been translated from the original Latin. The International Astronomical Union says there is a great need for scholarship into Kepler and that it should be prioritised as an area for further study. Perhaps I am naive (likely, I am a suspected autist after all), but I truly believe that if I can come up with a suitable title for a project then I have a fighting chance of finding myself on a fully funded distance learning PhD in the History of Astronomy. And the History of Astronomy field is a completely different beast to the Physical Sciences – I don’t need to be beholden to someone else to give me a job to continue pursuing my special interest. I can do it all by myself if need be. No one can hinder me.

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