Autism Neurodiversity

Autistic Special Interest: Secret Strength? (Special Interests in ASD)

special interest definition autism

Are Autistic Special Interests Really Our Secret Strength?

Special interests are one of the most defining traits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD): an intense focus on a specific subject. But ASD special interests are also a secret strength of autistics everywhere. Learn more about how autistics use our special interests to regulate our emotions and expand our worldviews today, on Neurodiverging.

? Rather listen than read this post? This post is based off of Episode 6 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify

Today, we’re here to discuss autistic special interests. I think that special interests are relatively misunderstood among non-autistic people, so let’s talk a little bit about what special interests are, how they function and work for autistic people, how other ASD people see them.

Plus, did you know: You can use special interests to help branch out, or extend your abilities and your range, and create more strengths, if that’s something you’re interested in doing!

Where I’m Coming From

I am talking about special interests from an neurodivergent perspective. I’m an autistic person with an autistic child, living with multiple neurodivergent people, and I have my own special interests.. So, this article is a summary of my experience from those perspectives and from knowledge of my friends and how they work with their special interests.

The Difference Between Autistic Special Interests and Neurotypical Special Interests

First, do you know what a special interest it? A special interest is when a person has an intense focus on a specific subject, and wants to learn about that subject, or think about that subject, above all else.

Neurotypical people have special interests, too. Sometimes, these special interests are hobbies. Building train sets, gardening, art projects, being an organizing junkie, writing, knitting, or being a sports fan can all be examples of neurotypical special interests.

Autistic special interests are usually less socially-oriented, more circumscribed, and related to less common topics. We’re not just interested in gardening for our location and region; we’re interested in the history of gardening, how gardening functions for people in society, what are the most famous gardens of the world, what are some really unique special gardens that nobody else knows about?

Unlike neurotypicals, autistics are going to have an intense focus on a specific topic that extends past the range what’s functionally useful. Neurotypical people, in my experience, tend to focus on what they can actually use. Autistic people are more interested in learning everything there is to know about the topic that’s interesting to them.

Examples of Special Interests in Autism Spectrum Disorder

So what’s an example of autistic special interests? I can give you some from my own experience:  My son has specific special interest in fans, wheels, anything that spins. He was in heaven when fidget spinner became popular. He’s been interested in spinning toys since he was a toddler, and now, five years later, that interest has evolved, but not changed!

And thinking back to when I was a kid, one special interest I had was horses – I knew so many things about so many different breeds of horses! This wasn’t particularly useful information for a 12 year-old. But, it was something that brought me a lot of joy and pleasure just to learn a lot about different kinds of horse breeds.

Other special interests I’ve had during my life include:

  • Queen, the band
  • Greek and Roman mythology
  • learning about autism spectrum disorder, autistic people, and autistic communities
  • baby and toddler sleep
  • parenting styles and techniques
  • baking and cooking
  • sooooooo many TV shows and books

Does Sex or Gender Affect the Presentation of Special Interests?

There are a wide variety of special interests among any given autistic population, in my experience. However, there is some research that indicates that special interests are different between men and women on the spectrum as well.

The research is not conclusive in any way. To my knowledge, no studies have been done with large populations, or what I would consider good controls. However, based on some smaller studies, it seems that women’s special interests tend to occur serially – they move from one deep special interest onto another one, and then another, over the course of their lives.

For example, I used to be into horses. Now ,I know nothing about horses, but I’m super into parenting. This would be an example of serial special interests.

For men, some research indicates that they tend to stick to one restricted interest for a longer period of time. That may or may not be accurate. I have had mixed anecdoatal experiences myself, and obviously, the male/female binary is full of problems, perhaps especially as autistics tend to be more gender diverse than the general population.

How Do Special Interests Serve Autistics?

We’ve talked a little bit about how special interests are different than hobbies in that they extend a little bit further. So, how do they function for autistic people? What I think is the most interesting aspect of special interests is that they offer energy to us as autistics.

Special interests are fulfilling in a deep, not quite spiritual, but certainly emotionally satisfying way. They are calming, they are predictable, and they bring us to our happy place. Listening to that Queen song, watching that horse run, or reading yet another variation of that Greek myth is what is comforting for me, and brings me to a place of calm and comfort and joy.

And, as I’ve mentioned before, the world can be challenging for an autistic person, frightening and unpredictable. Special interests offer an antidote to those unsafe feelings by giving us a place to go in our minds that is safe, will always hold our interest, and is deeply engaging. Special interests offer high value for us, and I don’t really think it can be underestimated.

This is why I always say that if your kid is really deeply into cars, let them be into cars. It’s a way that they’re expressing their need for calm.

If you’re a neurotypical person, you might be able to access that stress relief in other ways that autistics don’t have access to. But everybody deserves access to a calm, happy place where they can feel fulfilled.

Having A Special Interest Is A Normal Part of Being Human

Next, let’s discuss how parents, teachers and therapists, who are mostly neurotypical,  view special interests. What I find troubling is that there seems to be this pervasive thought that special interests are worrying tendencies, or behaviors, that need to be eliminated. I deeply disagree with that idea.

I want to talk a little bit about why I think that special interests are valuable, and should be valued, both for their own for their own existence, as well as for the person who has a special interest.

First of all, autistic people are people. Our brains are a little different than neurotypical brains, but that difference is valuable and should be kept in the world. Our differences should not be gotten rid of. Autistic special interests deserve to exist, deserve to be here, and getting rid of them dehumanizes autistic people in a way that I’m deeply uncomfortable with.

I also think that neurotypical people can worry about special interests because they don’t understand them. Assuming that you need to get rid of something in the world just because you don’t “get” it is troubling.

So, if you’re one of those people who’s scared of special interests, try to think through what is about them that’s so worrying for you. Try to make sure you are talking to autistic people themselves. How you interpret our special interest might be totally off-base from what is actually going on.

I notice that a lot of neurotypicals overreact to special interests, because special interests are one of the most recognizable traits of autism, maybe as recognizable as stimming, or lack of eye contact, or certain kind of physical repetitive behaviors. There is still an unfortunate myth that autism is scary.

I can understand how an under-educated neurotypical person might become worried when they experience an autistic special interest for a first time. There can be a feeling, born of fear, that the special interest must be something we want to eliminate, because it doesn’t look “normal,” by which they really mean, “neurotypical.”

Use Your Special Interest to Grow and Learn

And like I said before, it doesn’t matter if you think autistic traits are normal or not, they exist and you got to deal with them. So work from there, okay. It is something that is bringing your person your autistic person joy and comfort and calm. And that on its own, with nothing else deserves to be in the world. Okay, so learn how to work with the autistic trait.

The second thing that I noticed a lot, especially with therapists, and often therapists who mean well and are well trained and are doing the best they can, is the therapist may focus on how restrictive the special interest is. So if an autistic person is doing or watching or saying the same things over and over again, playing with the toy the same way. Especially if they’re not doing it like playing with the toy in a social way, but they’re playing with the toy sort of, not in the way it’s intended. Isn’t that what they always say on the surveys.

So if you have little dolls, and you’re spinning them around on the floor, instead of, you know, making them talk to each other, then a lot of therapists and kind of evaluators, autism, evaluators will focus on that and say, well, that’s, you know, a restrictive interest that spinning is making it more difficult for this child to use the dolls the way they’re intended.

So first of all, toys are not intended to do anything, except to bring some comfort and fun. So if a kid is having fun spinning the toy on the ground, I mean, it might mean they’re artistic. I’m not saying it’s a bad metric. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to play with a toy. That’s just not a thing. I’m sorry.

Second of all, I would argue that for a lot of us, autistics having special interest broadens us, it takes us out of our comfort zones in ways that you might not expect. And if you’re if you do have a child, if you’re a parent, and you do have a child who has a special interest that you feel is restrictive, I would suspect that it’s not the interest itself. That’s restrictive so much as how your kid is approaching the interest. And this is something that you can work with your child to adapt, if it is something you’re concerned with as a parent.

So again, you’re not trying to get rid of the special interest. You’re not trying to remove it. You are maybe trying To extend it somewhat to help your child branch out, so let me talk about that for a minute. Okay.

My son is a spinner, he’s still a spinner. But when he was maybe two, one and a half, two, he started spinning everything in the house. The minute he got his hands on any new thing, he would check to see if it spun. And where in the house it would spin would it spin on this kind of floor? Or this kind of floor? Best? And what would happen if he spun it this way? Or this way? Or this way? What if he’s been these two things at the same time, etc. And that is a restrictive, right? a habit, right? Where you are literally only spinning things, you’re not doing anything else with them.

Now, I would also mention he’s too, when you’re to some kids are expanding and doing kind of social play and parallel play. But a lot of kids are still just learning how the world works and how physics works, and what happens when you spend things. And so at two, I don’t worry about that being restrictive. Some of the therapists did, though.

And so what we sort of came to terms about was that we’re not going to get rid of this meaning, what we’re gonna try to do is help him understand kind of the value of spinning, were spinning useful, and how can you extend the range of spinning things, to learn about the world in different more interesting ways.

So you can work from spinning top, you know, little magnets on the floor, to getting to be interested in fans, which he did. And now how do fans work? What do they do? What are they used for? You know? And then what about washing machines they spin? What do they get used for? How do you use them? Right?

So now he’s learning about electronics. He’s learning about different functions of spinning things. He’s learning about different household chores. All right, then from washing machines, what are some other things that spin Oh, well stand mixer spin, do you want to help me make muffins and we can watch the stand mixer spin.

So now we’re learning about baking and household economics and other important things, and how food comes, how people make food and how the food that appears on your plate is generated, right? And then l from sin mixers, what else spins Oh, maybe we could look at a video on whirlpools and how to whirlpools form.

Okay, now you’re looking at kind of geophysics and the mechanics of the Earth’s crust and how the ocean forms and all these really cool, cool things, different kinds of rocks, right? And Okay, so now we’ve looked at whirlpools, and the Earth’s crust, you know, what else fins, black hole spin, could we maybe do a little bit of research on black holes, and kind of learn what they do, how they, how they work in the universe, as far as we know. And that led to a whole thing on how stars are created, how planets spin, how planets go around the sun.

Okay, so this is kind of a at home example of how you can take a very simple, somewhat restricted, special interest, and help the child expand.

So maintain the special interest and allow them to still spend magnets on the floor if they want to, but also introduce them to alternative ways that that interest functions in the world. Okay. Now I understand spinning is a mechanical sort of interest. And it might be hard to apply that out.

So let’s look as said at say, Greek and Roman mythology, which was my special interest for a long time. Now, my interest in Greek and Roman mythology manifested initially as an interest in Greek and Roman stories, right? And so looking like who were the Greek gods, memorizing the Greek Pantheon, who was related to whom? What were different stories about them? How are the stories different?

So in some cases, the myth of Hades in 470 looks like this. And in some other cases, it looks like this will why when now, initially, this was a very restrictive interest, I was basically memorizing stories, and I could regurgitate them. And I was sort of building a library of stories in my head, but I wouldn’t say they were particularly useful for anything outside of my own internal kind of peaceful place, which is important in and of itself, but they weren’t something I could apply to the larger world. Okay.

As I got older, I was able to use those Greek and Roman mythology myths to compare and contrast other world mythologies. Okay, what’s the same and what’s different from them? If we look at Greek and Roman, and then we look at Babylonian myth, or we look at ancient Judaism, or we look at, well, you know, any kind of, even if you look at ancient South American Indian myth, mythology, and trying to just compare and contrast what’s the same and what’s different what I got mythology was learning about people, and different kinds of cultural practices, different kinds of religious practices.

I took three semesters of Latin, so that I could learn Greek and Roman mythology better. I got into religious studies and anthropology and sociology because of Greek and Roman mythology. I got into comparative culture, because of Greek and Roman mythology.

I’m a better communicator, honestly, because of Greek and Roman mythology. So that’s a more liberal, artsy sort of less mechanical approach to how can you take an interest like Greek and Roman mythology and expand it out? Well, maybe you could take your kid to the garden, or the Botanic center near you, when we’re not under quarantine. And look for some plants that occur in Greek and Roman myths. Right?

Maybe you could look at the planets and say, hey, why do you think Jupiter’s named Jupiter? What are some things that are similar? What are some things that are different, right? Look at all those moons named after the Roman goddesses, okay?

Look at the Greek underworld and compare, contrast it with the various other ancient Mediterranean religions underworlds. Because honestly, that is fascinating. And I would be happy to talk about that for a long time.

There are lots of ways to if you’re creative, take anybody’s special interests and sort of pick it apart and spread it out. Okay.

So if you are a parent, or a teacher or a therapist, and you’re worried about special interests, just remember, especially interests don’t have to be restrictive. We don’t want to make kids do things they’re not comfortable with just to have them branch out, like, just like neurotypical people, not everybody should jump out of a plane and go skydiving, it’s not for everyone, you don’t branch out just for the heck of it.

What you do is you find where your comfort zone is, and you stretch slightly past that and autistic people, most of us want to do the same thing, right? We want to have new experiences. But it can be scary. To get out of that routine, to not know what’s happening, it can be frightening. So allowing us to have their special interests that are calming and predictable. And just stretch them a little bit at a time can be a really great way to expand our range and expand your child’s range in a way that is comfortable for them and for you as the parent and offers you a way to see what they’re really capable of. A

nd just remember, just because something looks like an autistic trait doesn’t mean it’s bad. It is an autistic trait. autistic traits aren’t bad things. They’re just autistic traits. They’re there. There is no difference between an autistic trait and an neurotypical trait. You’re just not used to seeing them as equal but they are equal. autistic traits and neurotypical traits are equal. The way you want to do it as a neurotypical person is not inherently better than the way an autistic person wants to do the same thing.

So please listen to each other, and honor each other’s brains and their differences. Okay, if that’s the one thing I can help you get out of this particular podcast, I would say, let them be equal in your mind.

Another example of how special interests helped me broaden my range is I was very interested in the band Queen when I was, I don’t know, maybe 12 to 14 ish, probably a little longer than that. And Queen made me interested in learning to sing. And also in learning piano, which I did somewhat, but I’m still pretty bad at it. But learning piano helped me develop more coordination. And then I was able to learn some basic percussion, like I can move my hands and my feet in slightly different patterns, which is cool. I could not do that at all before I was like, 16 I know some people’s bodies just do that I had to work so hard to clap, you know, in quarter notes, while my feet are doing half notes, or whatever.

Through enjoying Queen and wanting to learn more about music, I learned to sing and I learned to be in front of people. I auditioned in front of people. I did badly sometimes and had to learn to take criticism from like teachers and professors. I got over my nerves and saying on stage, like these are all really valuable life skills that can be applied widely right to at most most jobs, honestly, where you have to talk in front of customers or in front of superiors and being having a very deep level interest in Queen got me there. Okay.

So again, just because you can’t see, the initial application of special interest doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist. Be creative. Listen to your kid, and listen to your autistic friend and you will get there together.

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  1. I’m an art therapist and did my dissertation focusing on the importance of special interests in working with autistic folks. That they are a strength and are important in therapy and that often autism shouldn’t even be the focus of therapy but rather something that informs how we approach treatment of anxiety and depression–which is often why I end up seeing folks with autism in my practice. Therapists too often want to “fix” autism instead of truly seeing their clients and their needs.

    1. Hi Jessie, thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate your recognition that “fixing” autism shouldn’t be a goal for therapists at all, and I think your clients must be lucky to work with you. Your dissertation sounds fascinating – is it available online somewhere? I’d love to look over it.

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