Autistic brains are driven by passion, interest, and joy. This is why so many Autistic people celebrate a phenomenon that we call "special interests." The autism life coaches here at APC know that special interests are the key to building a thriving Autistic life! So what's so special about special interests?
If an Autistic person says something is their special interest, it means they've put a huge effort into learning everything about it. Special interests are a source of immense joy, dedication, and purpose. They fill our lives with meaning and help us find common ground with the people around us. Sadly, neurotypicals around us haven't always grasped the concept.
(Ron Swanson's special interest is woodworking. He definitely knows more than that guy at Home Depot.)
The term "special interest" started as a way to describe how Autistic people interact with their passions. At first, the term had a negative connotation. Some neurotypicals judged our intense focus to be "abnormal." Instead of seeing Autistic joy and dedication, they saw "unhealthy obsession." Sometimes, Autistics were even discouraged from spending time with their favorite things.
Over time, this perception has changed for the better. Self-advocates have pushed the public to understand how special interests actually help us. When there's a task at hand, connecting it to a special interest is a guaranteed way to get and keep us motivated! Today, it is widely regarded as beneficial for Autistics to engage in their special interests.
Language is an ongoing source of discussion, as the word "special" is often used to exclude and dehumanize the Disabled community. This connotation has prompted some people to seek alternatives to the phrase "special interest." One option, hyperfixation, is especially popular where Autistic and ADHD identities intersect. Despite the debate, "special interest" remains the most popular and widely-used term.
Gotta catch 'em all
Special interests can cover an extremely wide range of passions and areas of knowledge. Common topics include pop bands, sedimentary rocks, animated movies, dinosaurs, and the physics of time and space. No matter what someone's special interest is, the power behind that interest can have a big impact.
You may be familiar with the story of Satoshi Tajiri, born in Tokyo, Japan in 1965. His passion for bugs was so all-encompassing that childhood friends dubbed him Dr. Bug. As he saw urbanization on the rise, Tajiri wanted other kids to be able to find and collect little critters like he did. This dream led to none other than Pokémon, the highest-grossing media franchise in history! Special interests enrich not only the lives of Autistics, but also the lives of people around us.
(Yet, for some reason, Bug is the weakest type in the game... but don't even get me started on that.)
Special interests are social interests
The way Autistics engage with our special interests varies from person to person. Some love to search for and categorize information, filing it away in a perfect system of their own creation. For others, it's more so a source of joy and excitement--a happy, safe place for one's mind to recharge its battery. But something you might not realize is that special interests are social, too!
Swapping facts about the things we love (AKA "info dumping") is a favorite way for Autistics to connect with others. For many of us, getting questions about our special interest from a place of genuine curiosity is the greatest gift of all! Don't ask us, "How was your weekend?" Ask us, "What kind of bug is this?"
The realization that you share a special interest with someone is like a supernova of human connection. It's immediate rapport and mutual understanding. This why we don't like small talk. Why putter around at Friendship Level 2 when you could be skipping straight to Level 100?!
(Accurate representation of skipping to Friendship Level 100.)