Special interests and a brain full of pens

This meme has been doing the rounds around spectrumites of late.

In one group I frequent the mods posted it and everybody in the group argued and then they started banning anyone who disagreed. It’s actually pretty standard for these things. You can die waiting for people to agree whether it’s “autistic person” or “person with autism”. (Most, but not all of us, prefer the former but there’s a trend towards the latter in general talk about disabilities. And then there’s the fight to be had over whether or not we’re even disabled.)

Personally I find the term “special interest” a bit twee and patronising. It feels like being out with a girlfriend and someone – usually an older man – saying:

Him: Have you met Cantatrice and her special friend?

Me: My friend? This chick? Oh we’re not friends. I’ll have you know that we totally –

Long suffering girlfriend: Cantatrice and I are actually in a relationship. Sorry I see somebody we have to talk to now. Nice meeting you!

Back when I was aware my brain was different from others but had no idea why I used to talk about the obsessions that would capture my brain. I still use that term, which is a bit of an issue for two reasons. Firstly because many autistic peeps absolutely hate it and I respect their feelings about that. Secondly because “obsession” has a distinct meaning within psychiatry and this isn’t it. But the colloquial use of obsession still comes closer to what I think I experience than any other term I can think of.

As I understand it the objection to “special interest” as a term is that it is pathologising. It has been used, apparently, in the context of taking away kids’ train timetables and books about snakes. That’s horrible, although it follows neatly in the path of the “punish children for any autistic behaviours, and they’ll become less autistic!” approach. This approach works about as well as taking someone’s guide dog away to make their vision return. So I understand how the term could become a painful one. The problem there is not that the term itself is pathologising but that it is used in a horrible way. The solution here is not to insist that the markers of autism are indistinguishable from the neurotypical experience. People do the same thing when they point out that neurotypical people stim too. They do. But telling a neurotypical kid to stop humming or tapping their fingers is likely to be OK with them. Tell an autistic kid not to rock or spin and you may take away the action which is keeping their anxiety at a manageable level. We all stim but some of us need to more than others.

But I need to be clear about something. Special interests are not just hobbies. There is a distinction there that needs to remain. I have a lot of hobbies. I’m passionate about singing (obviously), dressmaking, knitting, sewing, embroidery, drawing, and scoffing down books like a pro. If you were to fire up a ten minute conversation about dressmaking I’d happily chat with you about it. If you were to try that ten minute conversation about fountain pens on the other hand…


How much would you like to hear about fountain pens? You may end up hearing ALL THE THINGS in a rush of total inky joy. You may just get HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE accompanied by a glazed looking grin. If I’m having a bad day I may freeze up and shut down with an instinctive fear of doing that thing again. The thing I did over and over as a kid: talking about my obsession without understanding boredom, ridicules or smirks from others. Recoiling when others who’d apparently been quite happy to listen to me talk about an obsession would snap and tell me in words that I was boring them and could I never speak to them again please. Even from the same vantage point it can be complicated. I don’t want to sound self-pitying here. The start of actually picking up some social skills was, for me, hearing this kind of unambiguous message from others, even if it did sting a bit at the time.

The special interest is more like falling in love than it is like a hobby, although it’s not too much like either. Like love, though, it finds and invades you, and it doesn’t matter how much sense it makes to you or anyone else. As I’ve said I was a fountain pen user before 2016. I’ve always preferred to use them. But it was only in 2016 that I decided to read up on them in order to choose one. And then the familiar rush: brain hurtling downward through a vertical pipe towards a small still point in the world. But as I approach that point spreads out, the pipe falls away and the world of the obsession rushes to greet me. It blossoms in colour and sound and works its way through the folds of my strange little brain. To some extent it will be a filter through which I will see the world from that moment on: a tickly, fizzy little sensation of excitement. The world is horrible and frightening and incomprehensible but I’m still here, the obsession says. Come and look at me again.

Yeah that’s basically how it is. If you get that from karate I am genuinely delighted for you.

So where did I end up? After a copious amount of reading and comparing I went into The Pen Shop in Leeds and asked to have a look at a Pelikan M400. I did not lure the salesman into thinking even for one moment that I was there to buy it. And I didn’t. But I did tell Beloved to buy one, and he did, and Pelly the Nelikan was mine.

So how does she fare? Well first up she is pretty small. Pelikan Souverans/Stresemanns run from the teeny M300 to the M1000 HELLO I HAVE A VERY LARGE… PEN. All are gold-nibbed and pretty. The Stresemanns have numbers that end in 5 and their nibs are rodium-plated. It mostly seems to be an aesthetic thing. I fell a bit into the pen nerd nonsense about matching your pen size to the size of your hands. This is a silly idea because what feels right doesn’t correspond to hand size. I have no difficulty using pens of any size and of course pencils and (shudder) ballpoints are typically thinner and lighter than any fountain pen anyway. But I bought it and picked the M400 out of the lovely lovely flock of Souverans. If I did this again I’d probably go for the M600 instead.

Pelly is a marvellous little lady: her looks are classic and understated. Her nib is two toned and pretty and writes flawlessly. To be fair I’d be pretty unhappy if this wasn’t the case with any pen that cost £170 but it does sometimes happen with ones that cost much more. Her nib is M but writes more like a B which I’m told is fairly standard for Pelikans. She’s a piston filler with a good ink capacity and is a bit tricky to clean because you absolutely do not attempt to take her apart like some lowly TWSBI. Have some respect!

She is beautiful and loved and special.


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