Psychology I got interested in psychology when I was a teenager; it explained a lot about the multiple episodes of depression I have had over the years, starting at about nine years old, and helped me to learn more about myself. From there, I started studying psychology from textbooks and at the library; by the time I was at college, I ran out of things to learn from textbooks and started reading the journals to sift through the newer information on the topic. I eventually got fascinated with cognitive psychology, especially neurological development during the "language explosion" of the early childhood years. I took some college classes in psychology, and easily earned "A"s, generally with 100% on the tests.
Naturally, studying child psychology and language led me to autism, and from there to Asperger's. At this time I had already been hospitalized for depression; but learning about psychology eventually paid off in my personal life in a big way. During a phone call to my mother, I mentioned studying autism and Asperger's, and that I thought I might have some of the same traits as someone on the autism spectrum. Reluctantly, my mother, an occupational therapist who sometimes works with autistic children, revealed to me that she had known I was autistic when the DSM-IV had been revised in 1994, but had refused to have me "labeled".
I went to my psychiatrist with this information, and after an hour-long interview, she agreed that my mother and I were almost certainly right; I had a missed diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, probably because psychologists who work with adults are not looking for "childhood disorders". (Lately I have been studying the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, and believe my correct diagnosis is probably PDD-NOS because I had highly odd speech and some trouble learning how to take care of myself. I look forward to seeing the new diagnostic criteria in the next edition of the DSM, since this might clear up the confusion that causes over half of autism diagnoses to be thrown into the "PDD-NOS" catch-all.) The specific diagnosis isn't nearly as important as what I've learned from it, though.
Now that I know my own diagnosis, I can research autism itself and apply many solutions that other people have found to the problems I myself face. I learned, for example, to regulate sensory input and lower my stress level by wearing sunglasses outside and wearing comfortable clothes. I learned many techniques for calming myself when I become overwhelmed; before that, I had either had tantrums or resorted to self-injury (scratching, cutting, biting, banging, etc.). I learned how to deal with executive dysfunction by breaking tasks into smaller pieces and making up lists and procedures. Since I got my diagnosis, I've been able to learn to drive, keep up a 3.8 at college (I had a 2.1 before), and be successfully employed at an internship in the pharmacology/toxicology department for the first time. Understanding my own weaknesses and my own cognitive style has helped me to realize that people are not all meant to think, learn, and do things the same way; and that I have to tailor those things to my own odd brain.
Cats I first got interested in cats when my grandparents dropped a pair of barn kittens on our doorstep. Unimaginatively named Tiger, my first cat taught me how to read feline posture, movement, and vocalizations. Oddly enough, I have much more trouble gauging the mood of a human being than I do with cats; I can look at a cat and see how comfortable it is in its environment, what interests it, what it thinks of me, what it is feeling at the moment, and a little about its personality. Cats are comfortable social interaction that require no words to understand and be understood.
I went about studying cats the same way I study most things: I raided the library and exhausted their resources. Later, when I was on my own, I started volunteering at cat shelters and helping manage the feral cats in my own community. In my neighborhood, when a new cat is dumped or a feral moves in from another area, we put out bait in a trap and take the cat to the Humane Society to be neutered and receive a rabies shot. Then, after recovery, the cat is released back into its environment to live as part of a small managed feral colony. The advantages of feral cat TNR (trap-neuter-release) are that one doesn't have to constantly round up feral cats to be euthanized; nor is there a problem with intact cats fighting, spraying, and having litter after litter with a high mortality rate for the kittens and often the mother.
Managed colonies save a lot of money since feral cats tend to keep to themselves and be nearly invisible, and all that's required is to set up a program to watch for new ones and get them neutered. A neighbor two doors down manages a feeding station for the neighborhood ferals, and we even get the food for free from the Humane Society.
I have one cat myself, and am also taking care of two foster cats. Fostering a cat means that the cat is not doing well at the shelter and needs extra care, and hopefully can recover its health and be adopted out. One of my fosters is a very shy little calico who is just learning that it's OK to sit on people's laps after a year; another foster I've had for a week; she was picked up with the worst flea problem any of us has ever seen, anemic and undernourished, and may possibly have cancer. I am taking care of her until we know whether she can recover, or whether she will have to be euthanized. If she recovers, I will try to find her a home. Currently, I am helping manage a database of adoptable cats for the shelter where I volunteer; we hope that an online resource might help improve publicity and get more cats adopted.
Physics & Mathematics I picked "physics & math" out of a longer list of science-related topics; the other really strong interests in that area are statistics and calculus. I first got interested in astronomy as a child; I learned all the constellations, and then I branched out into the laws that dictated how the stars in those constellations worked. I didn't have the mathematics for it, but by the time I was about fourteen, I understood how relativity worked and had opinions on the newer ideas in quantum physics.
Modern physics has always been a love of mine, but mechanics (Newtonian physics) had their turn, too, when I took a statics class and started really learning how to use Newton's laws to balance forces against each other and fully describe a system with numbers. In college, when I learned calculus, I enhanced my collection of ideas in modern physics with the ability to put numbers on the ideas of what happens when space-time gets curved.
My interest in mathematics is especially odd because I was actually delayed in mathematics as a child; I was working on first-grade concepts in the third grade, and only caught up around the sixth grade and the beginnings of algebra. Apparently, what was hard for me wasn't the logic of mathematics but the memorization of math facts (I finally learned my multiplication tables in high school, when I turned the mathematical ideas of numbers into mental shapes and imagined how they interacted.
Even now, I don't do multiplication the normal way; asked to multiply 8*6, I will imagine 6*4*2 instead. I know that a 4x6 rectangle has 24 squares in it because I can imagine that many squares; then, I stretch that rectangle two units into the third dimension, making a solid with 48 units and coming up with 8*6=48, or else double the 6*4 rectangle to make 48. It's no wonder I took to calculus like a duck to water--calculus is all about merging algebra and geometry and I think of numbers in terms of logic and shapes, not as abstract facts to be memorized!
My current topic in this field is statistics. I love the way you can take a lot of random data, find the patterns in it, and then find the exact odds that this list of numbers actually matches your predictions! I've gotten the opportunity to actually do this semi-professionally during a summer internship at the pharm/tox department at my university. I get to crunch the numbers in an experiment to determine the effects of fructose on the circadian rhythm.
Can I turn these special interests into a job? Well, if internships count, yes. Maybe even for a long-term job. At one point I thought I should be a veterinarian, but there's too much social contact involved... The problem with special interests and employment seems to be that many jobs require social skills plus whatever interest it is, which is why I can't become a psychologist. My current internship is meant for minorities, including disabled people, and I am receiving a lot of help that makes up for my weaknesses and lets me use my strengths properly.