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The Necessity of Special Interests for Me as a Person on the Autism Spectrum

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It is a key characteristic of people on the autism spectrum to often be singularly occupied with so-called “special interests.”

But what distinguishes a special interest from a regular hobby? Many people absorb themselves into time-consuming hobbies, so, superficially, it might not seem extraordinary. However, I’ve had hobbies like that myself, and I don’t believe it really compares. And just to make clear from the start: I don’t consider a special interest an obsession. Like a regular hobby, it can certainly turn into one, but I don’t consider it by default any such thing. Allow me to try and explain how I see it:

For me, the single greatest difference between a special interest and a hobby is that it’s possible for me to put a hobby on hold if life changes make it impractical, or if I’m stressed and preoccupied.

For my special interests, the inverse is true.

When I’m going through stress or life changes, I literally need my special interests to stay functional. Therefore, they may prop up at what might seem an inconvenient time to start a new hobby. And when I say “prop up” instead of “pop up,” that’s a pun; they are indeed my brain’s way of regaining balance from everyday chaos by creating a safe zone in which to restore energy, order and sanity.

A special interest is a place I can control, where I can fully define the rules of play. It’s predictable, accessible and free from unwanted disturbances. Without exception, mine have offered a large number of facts and/or patterns to be learned and explored; small gardens I could tend to until they outgrew their habitat. A special interest rewards the time I put into it with energy I need to function properly, and I also feel strangely happy and at peace when submerging myself into one. It is a friend that always offers comfort, learning opportunities, even a sort of intimacy and a path for growth. It conforms to the rules I have set, in diametrical opposition to the real world, where I must attempt to adapt to the vague and — to me — irrational social rules of other people.

So, no. It’s not an obsession I “need to snap out of.” And when I say I need it, I’m quite serious. If you stay with me for a second, I’ll try to elaborate.

When I grow low on energy, I don’t simply get tired and grumpy. I literally lose control of crucial mental faculties some others might take for granted. This is a non-exhaustive list of the most prominent ones:

  • The ability to gauge my own emotional/stress levels.
  • The abilities to read and evaluate facial expressions, tone of voice, social context, intent and even the trajectories of objects.
  • Frequently I will lose grasp of my temperament, vocal amplitude, physical tics, my reaction to stimuli and even some motor function — including facial expressions.

These are all intuitive abilities for many people; they run in the background. I, and others like me, have to actively manage and process them all to a rather large degree at any given time, and I need a mental surplus to do so. A single brain can only actively do so many things.

As my mental energy is worn down by social interactions, changes of plans or unmet expectations, there comes a point where I can feel these basic abilities starting to disappear. It’s a harrowing, agonizing experience of feeling like I’m literally losing my mind, one piece at a time. When it gets really bad, I’m struggling so hard to function at a most basic level that it becomes a chore to string together sentences, that I can barely connect with my facial muscles, and any sudden event will make me cover for safety. The only solution to avoid a complete meltdown is solitude, isolation from stimuli and, yes, engaging in my special interests.

My wife has grown to understand this to a large degree. I used to work my special interests mostly late at night, but that’s not a viable solution in our household. Once in a while, to be able to power through the week, I need to dive into my seemingly frivolous piles of facts and sequences during family hours. Instead of just chiding me for spending some of the few hours we have together on my interests, it has become something we can talk about. I rarely ever reach the point described above anymore; we are learning to manage it.

In light of this — if you have a partner, child or friend with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I beseech you to recognize their special interests as more than just an obsession or a nuisance, unless of course it is actively destructive. Please know it can also serve a purpose and be inherently beneficial. Naturally, it needs to be balanced with everyday life, as it can surely get out of hand, but having a healthy relationship with one’s special interests can help keep meltdowns at bay and make the remaining time that much easier and enjoyable.

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Thinkstock photo by kieferpix

Originally published: June 22, 2017
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