Due to a vast increase in diagnoses of autism (in addition to greater public awareness), children and adults with the condition are widely known to have what has been appropriately termed as “Special Interest”. Special interests are topics of which we have a kind of obsession about, and there may indeed be more than one of them. In my own case it’s the Harry Potter series, as well as an intense interest in my work as a writer and speaker.
Personally I like the word “Special Interest” as a means of describing them. This is because the term “Fixed Interest” suggests that we have no care in the world for anything but that topic. Also, the term “Obsessive Interest” suggests that we’re negatively fixated on that topic, whereas the term “Special Interest” correctly suggests that it’s merely a favourite topic which gives us intense pleasure while we’re studying it.
A person usually doesn’t even have to know us for more than a day in order for them to recognise what our special interest/s is. It will be something of which we will talk about endlessly in a passionate way. If we are nonverbal (which is never an indication of whether we have more or less support needs) it will be equally obvious that we enjoy learning about and discussing the topic in other ways.
In my own case I excessively study the Harry Potter books and films. Since I was nine years old I have spent so many hours each day reading the books and watching the films, over and over again without ever getting bored. I’m so intensely focused on the series that I also wish to expand this into other areas of my life. Thus I also spend a lot of time building tangible models of that world out of Lego bricks, as well as visiting the Harry Potter theme parks from time to time and collecting memorabilia from the series.
My writing and speaking career is also a special interest for me. In my job I am an advocate and motivational speaker (as well as a blogger) as a person with autism, anxiety, and having an inability to forget any of my past experiences, positive or negative. Whenever I involuntarily relive past experiences all of my emotions from that event return to me.
Traveling around to do conference talks, doing an advanced Toastmasters course (past Competent Communicator), answering three emails a day, and writing several blogs for various places each week and keeping various social media pages updated daily is indeed very difficult. Yet due to being passionate about this career, I am willing to work on all that was mentioned above for 95% of my day, and to not feel overly stressed about the intense workload. If it were all in an area of which I didn’t feel passionate about, there would be no way on earth that I would cope with it all.
Something else which should be noted when it comes to our special interest area (especially when we’re children) is that we may be boastful and/or believe that we know everything there is to know about that topic. Yet there are generally a few specific reasons for why that is the case.
As well as all of the indicators that are visible externally, there is also just as much going on a little below the surface, when it comes to our special interest area. The first thing is that we would of course have extensive knowledge about the topic as we spend so much time every hour of every day studying and (especially) thinking about it.
Yet what’s most significant is that the topic has a deep emotional connection for us (and yes autistic people do still experience emotions, even though we have difficulties with understanding them). With our special interest area we’ll experience pleasure from studying it, and also from the praise and self-satisfaction we get by knowing that there is something we excel at, given that we’re limited in just about every other area. This often carries over to defensiveness whenever we feel that we’re being doubted, dismissed or overlooked in that particular area. We may even get defensive if someone doesn’t seem to care as much about that topic as we ourselves do. That defensiveness can often be seen as boasting and bragging.
From childhood it’s very important for parents and/or caregivers to nurture and encourage an autistic person’s special interest. Excess of course must be avoided as much as possible. We must learn (by caregivers expanding us a little) to acknowledge parts of our life that are not related to our special interest area. It’s also crucial for us to not become so self-important that we belittle everyone else’s skills and talents. Essentially what we need to develop in regards to our special interest area is nothing more or less than a healthy self-esteem. Also, when our special interest is nurtured (by other people and always ourselves) it can be used in a way that gives us a career and earns us a living. This leads to further independence.