My previous post about collections gave rise to this post, in a natural progression sort of way. I mean, it only stands to reason that if we’re going to put the time and energy (and sometimes money) into collecting something, it’s going to be something we’re interested in.
We often call these “Special Interests”. Except that’s not quite how it’s termed in the official diagnostic criteria (link to CDC’s website) for the autism spectrum. Here’s what they say…
“Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history.”
I bolded the especially-relevant text for emphasis. I deliberately did not bold the word “Restricted”, because from what I’ve experienced myself and witnessed from others, our interests aren’t exactly restricted; many of us are interested in a wide variety of subjects/topics/objects/etc. I’ll write a separate post in the future that will delve into that point further. But for now…
First, the basics: what exactly are special interests, anyway?
Well, we know what the diagnostic criteria say, but since Nobody Asked Us(TM) (referring to the unfortunate fact that the developers of these criteria never actually sought our perspective when writing and deciding on these criteria), I’ll speak for myself and explain what this feels like and how it’s experienced by one “real-life” Aspie/autist.
“Special Interests”, to me, are subjects that I find so fascinating that I seek out all of the information I possibly can about them, even the so-called “mundane” facts. My brain seems to expand and it turns its virtual recorder on. If my stress level is lower at the time, I seem to remember facts, figures, relationships (connections, comparisons, etc, between different aspects of the subject matter), and other details about the topic rather easily. It feels to me like the information is similar to software and my brain is a computer, and the information I glean installs itself in my brain, in sort of a self-installing package.
The quest for information is usually pretty intense and focused, and the information may come in a way that seems like proverbial floodgates have opened. It requires time and energy, but it’s like hitting a warp zone or a jet stream; nothing else matters, including the passage of time or my increasing physiological needs (to eat, sleep, etc). I can stay awake for hours and remain oblivious to my surroundings and my body, deriving joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction, feeling almost as though I’m conquering the world.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool 🙂
The term “Special Interest” sounds a little “off” to many of us, including myself. This is why I usually write “Special Interest” using quotation marks; I may feel the need to use the term because of its common use and mass recognition, but it’s not my preferred term of choice. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why the term feels strange to me. Maybe it sounds condescending or patronizing? Almost like we’re being made fun of or criticized for having these interests? Or maybe it sounds childish, as though the rest of the world is (once again) perceiving and treating us like children? (It wouldn’t be the first time.) For me, it’s hard to say. I do think that the word “Special” is the culprit; perhaps my feeling about the term stems from its connections with ableist language? (Autistic Hoya has an excellent post on this subject, and it’s been updated fairly recently!)
Regardless, I prefer to call them “topics/subjects of intense interest”, “topics/subjects of intense focus”, “subject areas of (particular) interest”, and the like. Other Aspie/autistic people may have other preferred terms. It might be neat to coin some acronyms here – “SPI”/”TPI” for “subject/topic of particular interest”?
My subjects of particular interest have often run similar to my collections, although not always. For example, I’ve always loved traveling (in practically any form, although road trips are my favorite method), but I don’t have any collections involving travel. Engines are another topic of interest, but for lack of space/money/desire/logistics, I don’t collect them.
Throughout my life, my topics of interest have evolved and changed, while others have remained consistent over the long-term. I also have what I refer to as “primary” and “secondary” topics of interest, classified loosely by my level or intensity of interest in them and the effort and other resources I might put into pursuing them. Sometimes, a primary “special interest” might downgrade to the secondary level, or vice versa, and sometimes, I might lose (or gain) interest in something altogether. I tend to think of my particular interests as being in a sort of “cloud”, where some are more central, others are on the periphery, and some are dissociating from–or newly-associating with–the “cloud” all the time. This “cloud” is fluid, alive, and changing, in a constant state of flux, rather than being fixed, rigid, or permanent.
As a child/adolescent, my subjects of particular interest have included:
- Rainbows (of course)
- Reading (duh)
- Legos (stereotypical, I know LOL)
- Art (paintings, rich in color)
- Martial arts
- Ancient Egypt
- Dragons, unicorns, and other fantasy
- Flowers – when I was a small child, I knew exactly when each flower would start to appear in spring and in which order, and where/how in relation to each other. I had this down pat!
- Cars (as a teenager)
- The learning process in itself – I loved learning new things and I often learned just for the sake of learning
- Fashion (eeek! Yes, my guilty confession)
As a younger adult, my areas of particular interest included:
- Music (again, but exploring new, exotic, multicultural genres)
- Reading (duh)
- Texas Anything (I do love my state, although I also realize it’s not perfect; no place is 🙂 )
- Road trips
- Business (all aspects – law, marketing, accounting, etc)
- Psychology (especially Abnormal Psychology)
- Spanish language
- Ayurvedic medicine
- World religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism
- Natural healing (just beginning)
- Health (just beginning)
As a middle-aged adult, my current subjects of particular interest include:
- Human biochemistry
- Pantheism, Paganism (and to a minor extent, Wicca)
- Reading (duh)
- Writing (how’d you guess?)
- Legal and medical mysteries (think John Grisham and Robin Cook, respectively)
- Medical/biological documentary novels (think “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston or “Plum Island” by Nelson DeMille)
- Microbiology (especially that which is pathogenic to humans)
- Pathology in itself
- World cultures
- Music (duh; mostly international – Persian pop, Hindipop, Shoegaze, rock en Español, etc)
- Science-based complementary/integrative medicine, Functional Medicine
- Semi-surreal Generation X fiction (think Douglas Coupland)
- The Desert
- Astrology (of course)
- Autoimmunity (a specific type of pathology in which the body attacks itself; as someone with three diagnosed autoimmune disorders, I find the topic particularly fascinating, and I felt that way even before I found out that I have autoimmunity myself)
- Business (again, most aspects)
- Abstract and/or surreal digital art
- Classic novels (Sherlock Holmes, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, etc)
- Engines (of all types)
- Weapons (of all types, across time and culture)
- World religions
- Ancient Egypt
- Medical history
- And probably others! Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of them all, hence their “primary” and “secondary” rankings 🙂
Of course, if you’ve met one Aspie/autist, then you’ve met one Aspie/autist. Ask around, and you’ll find that all of us have very different profiles/lists of these topics of particular interest. We’re all different – some of us may be into certain sounds or textures, pieces of art, role-playing games, the concepts of dichotomy or irony, microscopes, acting, trees or landscapes, civil rights/justice, specific cars, healthcare, Tarot or palm reading, electricity, the Mayans, short stories, movies, friendship bracelets, vector art, Xbox games, science fiction, amateur radio, warships, the concept of avatars, political science, Tesla or Einstein, poetry, roses, knitting or crocheting, playing poker, numerology, cactus plants, women’s suffrage, publishing, photography, privacy rights, comedy, bartending, or the history of the Mafia…you get the idea. I have an Aspie friend who collects old foreign assault rifles (legally); that’s just what he’s interested in. Another friend does magazine cover art. And yet another is a nutritionist. And yet another is studying for a Masters in Chinese Medicine.
They say: “variety is the spice of life.”
I say: “then we’re a pretty damn spicy bunch!”