Many of those in the autism community are familiar with the term special interest, an intense and focused interest that an autistic person has on a topic, often paired with deep knowledge and heightened emotions. Special interests are largely a positive experience for the Autistic people who have them, brining joy, excitement, and meaning to their lives when they are able to engage with the topics that are important to them. Some people may have heard another term applied to this concept, called hyperfixation. But what’s the difference?
Hyperfixation is a newer term, created by the neurodivergent community to be available to all neurodivergent people who identify with it. This is because ‘special interest’ wasn’t originally a positive term—it was coined by psychiatric professionals as a way of pathologizing our behavior, or making our natural behaviors into something unusual and bad. These professionals wanted to name and study special interests so that they could force Autistic people to stop engaging with our interests in the ways that came naturally to us, and instead have less passion and knowledge, and focus on a broader set of topics, so that we would seem more “normal”.
Over time, the term special interest was reclaimed by the Autistic community, and we were able to reframe it as an important and joyful part of our lived experience. But because it was originally only used to hurt Autistic people, some members of the community felt that only Autistic people should have access to the term special interest, or that only Autistic people experienced what was defined as a special interest. This is why the term hyperfixation was created—to be accessible for every part of the community and claimed by all.
Over time, the two terms have grown apart, and now some people view them as referring to different experiences. Some neurodivergent people use both terms interchangeably, while others use the two terms to categorize the different ways they experience focused interests. Special interest has taken on the connotation of a long-lived interest, spanning anywhere from months to a lifetime, where the person has very deep and detailed knowledge of the topic. Meanwhile, the term hyperfixation has taken on the connotation of a shorter-lived interest, usually less than a year, where the emotions when engaging with the hyperfixation are very heightened, but there may or may not be a depth of knowledge that goes with them. Special interest is still very linked to Autistic identity and experience, whereas hyperfixation has become more associated with ADHD.
If you or a loved one experiences special interests, hyperfixations, or both, and wants to explore the ways these interests can be best integrated into daily life—whether it’s finding a job in an interest field, balancing interests and school, or taking on a new hobby—the coaches at Autism Personal Coach can help! Don’t hesitate to fill out our interest form and bring more joy and structure to your life today!