The Value of Special Interests

by dpreyde

I’ve been meaning to write about special interests for a long time, but haven’t been able to find the right words.
A special interest is something all autistic people have. It is an intense, obsessive, exploratory focus on a particular subject, often esoteric or in some way eccentric. We accumulate and memorize data about our special interests. We surround ourselves with them. We very nearly become them. For autistic people, our interests are very much a part of our identity- much more so than for ordinary people, I think. Spending time with a special interest induces a powerful, almost narcotic high for an autistic person, as well an overwhelming sense of inner peace and well-being. It’s something that non-autistic people can never hope to experience; your hobbies and past-times only approximate it.
Special interests are among the most important aspects of autistic culture. Through special interests you can see that we are information gatherers, attracted to building systems, obsessive, with little understanding of moderation, and- of course- devastatingly intelligent.
Special interests are the key to which so much else about autism can be witnessed. And they’re probably the best way to get to know an individual on the spectrum in a meaningful way.
A special interest might stick around for a few days or for a lifetime. It might disappear for awhile, and then return. There’s no predicting what will become a special interest for a particular autistic person- not even looking at their other interests can predict that.
For instance, one of my special interests in the past has been cruises. I’ve never been on a cruise, I’ve never been particularly interested in going on a cruise, I have little interest in travel, and no interest in boats.
But this particular special interest has cropped up on three separate occasions with feverish intensity.
My oldest special interest is Star Trek, which has been around for my entire life. It started when I was three months old and was exposed to The Next Generation for the first time, and surfaced most recently this month when I became obsessed with watching Star Trek: Voyager on YouTube.
Some of the other special interests I’ve had over the years include United States supreme court justices, death, Walt Disney World, subway stations, and the music of John Lennon. But God, there have been so many I can’t even remember them all.
What’s the purpose of special interests? Well, I believe that they’re a coping mechanism which has been hardwired into us. A gift, in other words. We feel too much and too deeply, most autistic people feel an overwhelming amount of empathy, we are constantly surrounded by too many lights, noises, and people. And we can’t properly communicate our distress- or so much of what we feel, for that matter.
Special interests are a way out, and they’re a way through. We don’t even have to consciously decide “Oh, I should focus on such-and-such now”. For the most part, it happens automatically (through we can train ourselves to seek it out). Special interests are an automated self-defence mechanism which all of us have. And it makes the unbearable less unbearable and often even tolerable.
A lot of specialists and professionals regard special interests with some amount of skepticism. They encourage parents to limit the time their autistic child spends on special interests. They pathologize special interests.
It’s true that sometimes we spend too much time on them, but when we do, that’s an indication that we’re under a great deal of stress. Special interests are, after all, a coping mechanism. Targeting the special interest is like taking Prozac away from someone with depression.
Figure out why the special interest is there, and what it’s doing for the individual, and then they won’t need it as much.
But again, special interests are a gift, and they give us so much happiness in a world which so often seems strange and hostile. They’re a little light that never goes out. Only in the most extreme situations could I imagine wanting to extinguish that light, or even dial down its intensity.
While everyone else is going cross-eyed trying to cope with the real world, I’ll be over here in my cozy corner finding out all there is to know about the neighbourhoods of Manhattan.