If you’ve ever interacted with an autistic person, chances are you’ve found out they have a certain topic that they could talk about forever. You’ve probably even asked yourself, “How do they not seem to get bored talking about it?”
Whilst you may see them as “obsessions”, we call them special interests.
Whilst not all autistic people develop special interests, it is something a lot of us experience. Perhaps in the media, you’ve seen the autistic person who can’t stop talking about trains, or the one that is a whiz in maths or science, but can’t seem to interact with other people.
So, why are special interests so important to us?
Imagine living in a world where you feel incredibly misunderstood, and everything is confusing. Social interaction is hard, and people seem to be judging you just for being yourself.
But then, you have this special interest that helps make the world a better place for you. It’s something you can understand and enjoy, and everything about it just seems amazing.
It’s comparable to the feeling of falling in love. If you’ve ever met someone that you just couldn’t take your mind off of, or just seems great no matter what they do, and you want to brag about them to everyone you know, that’s what having a special interest is like.
Autistic people are also especially prone to “hyper-focusing”. This is when an autistic person spends an extensive amount of time focusing on one thing, without thinking about anything else. They may start working hours on something they’re interested in, forgetting to eat, drink, or even go to the toilet. Hyper-focusing can be extremely common when the person is engaged in their special interest.
Should you discourage these special interests?
Unless their special interest is something that could potentially be violent or dangerous, then absolutely not!
I remember when I was a child, I developed a strong special interest in animation, particularly SpongeBob SquarePants. I would talk about it to everyone I knew, and it became apparent that that was what people would associate me with.
Teaching assistants at my school seemed to think this was dangerous, and tried to forbid me from even mentioning SpongeBob. Even when I expressed interest in doing animation as a job, one of the teachers even had the nerve to tell me, “You probably won’t ever get a job in animation!”
Without these special interests, chances are I would’ve been miserable. They gave me a passion, they gave me something to talk about with people, they helped transform me into the person I am.
It’s also incredibly unlikely that discouraging the special interest would work anyway. Autistic people are much more likely to develop a new special interest immediately after losing a previous one. I remember asking my mum once, “Why did you never discourage my special interests like others have?” Her response was, “Well I know you’re going to develop another one anyway!”
A lot of autistic people have even gone on to say they felt “lost” without having a special interest, as if something was missing from them.
What are the benefits of having a special interest?
There are many advantages a special interest can give an autistic person in life.
- If the person has struggled to make friends previously, having a special interest may help them to get to know others with similar interests.
- It can help them find the right career in the future. The creator of Pokémon developed his idea by mixing his special interest in video games with his special interest in bug collecting.
- They can help teach social skills, especially if said interest is a TV series or book series.
- We can become incredibly passionate about what we’re interested in.
- We may become incredibly knowledgable in our field of interest, which may come as a huge advantage when it comes to seeking careers.