About “special interests”

Anonymous said:

Hello! I am sorry I know this isn’t necessarily about social skills, but I was curious to know what exactly is a special interest and how it compares to a normal interest?
I was diagnosed as autistic a while ago, and while I am trying to continuously explore this, I’m always afraid of exploring this particular thing because I don’t know what makes my long-term interests special enough to qualify.
Everyone seems to have these, especially wrt popular media that impacts their life significantly.

realsocialskills said:

“Special interest” isn’t really an exact term. I don’t think there’s a big difference between special interests and regular interests.

The term comes out of the way that autistic people are often judged for liking things. “Special interest” means really, really liking something. (And it often means being told to stop caring about it so much.)

A lot of us are very intensely interested in things that other people consider unimportant or pointless. A lot of us are *not* very interested in things that most other people care about. 

For instance, I’ll generate a random autistic person with some random interests. (Using a random name generator and a random list of things generator.)

  • Ashlyn is a 12 year old autistic girl
  • She’s intensely interested in giraffes, zebras, and broccoli.
  • She’s not very interested in most other things. (A couple years ago she was similarly interested in lamps and fishtanks).
  • Ashlyn is not very interested in things that are considered normal interests for 12 year old girls.
  • She doesn’t care about clothes, horses, dating, dieting, running, gymnastics, art, dolls, cartoons, sitcoms, YA novels, or feminism
  • When she has a conversation, she usually changes the subject to giraffes, zebras, or broccoli.
  • Most kids her age don’t want to talk about these things, so she doesn’t have a lot of friends.
  • She does spend a lot of times on internet forums relevant to her interests though.
  • Her mom signed her up for girl scouts, but she refuses to go anymore now that the scout leader refuses to let her incorporate giraffes, zebras, or broccoli into her projects for badges. 
  • She has a large collection of books, documentaries, and plush toys on all of the above interests. 
  • Whenever she does an assignment for school, it will usually involve giraffes, zebras, or broccoli.

Ashlyn and others like her are told, over and over, than they’re too interested in things and that it’s a problem. Often, people with power do brutal and degrading things to autistic kids in an attempt to break them of their intense interests.

So, in autistic communities, it is often a point of pride to value interests. The idea is that in autistic space, no one is going to tell you that liking things is disgusting. No one is going to take your broccoli stickers away. No one is going to put you on a behavior plan for talking about giraffes too much. No one is going to tell you that no one will like you if you talk about zebras, or that you need to be normal and talk about horses instead. The idea is that whatever it is you’re interested in, the things you care about matter. And that we want to be a community of people who unapologetically like things.

So, some people, as a point of pride, talk about what we like and don’t like and call that having special interests. And talk about enjoying our interests and being proud of our focus. But there aren’t rules that you have to follow about what makes an interest special. The point is that it’s ok to like what you like, however much you like it.