There is a very common saying within autistic circles that goes, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” The saying highlights that although we all have autistic traits, no two autistic people will express those traits in the same way. Each autistic person is unique.
Restricted interests are the same way. There is a common myth that having restricted interests means that people who are autistic can only be interested in one thing. But if you’ve seen one restricted interest… well, you know what they say!
What Are Restricted Interests?
One of the diagnosis criteria for autism spectrum is, “Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).” [Source]
In layman’s terms, this means that autistic folks often have special interests that they get great joy from talking about, thinking about, and learning about, AND that thinking about other things when we want to be thinking about our special interest is hard.
Stereotypically, this special interest is something like trains, cars, or math. The truth is, restricted interests vary as widely as autistic people themselves do.
Restricted Interests Are About More Than Just Trains
Let me give you some examples of real autistic restricted interests I have encountered during my life.
Personally, I have a general high interest in animals, which has included, over a my lifetime, serial restricted interests in:
I am well-known for memorizing many, many facts (or myths, for the dragons) about my current topic of interest. In middle school, I went so far as to collect snakeskins for several years (sorry, Mom), before my interest ran out and I moved on to my next interest (and no doubt left the snakeskins for somebody else to clean up).
Additional personal special interests have included:
- Greek and Roman mythology
- Egyptian mythology
- how to bake French pastry
- identifying common birds of the Northeast US
- the history of marriage
- sourdough breads
- identifying Colorado flowers and trees
- autism spectrum, ADHD, and neurodiversity!
Restricted Interests Not Only Vary, But Change Over Time (Sometimes)
I am always in the midst of at least one special interest, but they do change over a lifetime. There is some research that indicates that women are more likely to have serial special interests over time, whereas autistic men may have the same special interest for a longer period of time, but the reason for that is not at all clear.
I do know autistic men who are very interested in cars and trains, but I also know autistic men who are deeply interested in weather phenomena, card tricks, and vegetable gardening. Restricted interests aren’t always very obvious from the outside, despite being a very common autistic trait.
Restricted Interests Can Impair Autistic People
Special interests can bring us great energy, pleasure, and excitement, but they can also cause problems. Many of us struggle with focusing on our jobs, schoolwork, household responsibilities, or parenting because we would really rather be engaging with our special interest, and it is deeply difficult to disengage.
We will lose sleep, forget to eat, and be even more socially-awkward because we are spending so much time and energy on the restricted interest.
What questions do you still have about restricted interests? Leave them in the comments!
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