‘Special interest’ vs obsession 

The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s/autism includes the tendency toward:

“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).”

…At least, as described by those with cultural authority (a topic that will in itself be the focus of a future post).

(That criterion is Part B-3, for the curious.)

This is often shorthand-termed “special interest”, by some on and off the spectrum, and although I’ve used this term myself, you’ll see that it’s usually enclosed in quote marks, which I intend to indicate that although it’s a common and recognizable term, I don’t particularly like it.

For the record, I prefer terms such as “niche specialty”, “subject area of expertise”, “topic/subject of interest”, and so on.  (Don’t those sound more dignified, not to mention more accurate?). Mix and match Dignified Terms until your heart’s content. 🙂

The word “obsession” has also been used.

I beg to differ on that point (actually, there are also aspects of the official criteria in which I beg to differ, too, but for now, I’ll nitpick on the “obsession” accusation).

As usual, I’ll explain, and as just-as-usual, I’ll start by defining the word.  Good ol’ Mirriam-Webster to the rescue!  Here’s what they have to say:

“a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly : compelling motivation”

Mmmm-kay…

Anyone who truly understands an Aspergian/autistic person knows that the word “obsession” is a little too far-reaching, and a little less accurate.  From here, I’ll speak in terms of myself only.

In firsthand fashion, I can definitively say that I have a wide variety of subject areas of intense interest.  I can describe the feeling I have toward these topics as a magnetic pull toward, a fascination with, and/or a deep curiosity about, these topics.

An outside onlooker might witness my engagement with activities or the pursuit of information regarding these topics and make the assumption that I’m “locked into” or “obsessed with” these subjects.  They might assume that they rule my life, sap up all my time and energy, and dominate my thoughts.

Not quite.  In fact, not even close.  In regard to the autism spectrum criterion in question, “highly restricted” is flat-out inaccurate.  I might concede that my interests may be “abnormal” in intensity or focus, although that largely depends on context; any lower of a level of intensity or focus appears comparatively superficial and incomplete, through my lens.

The “obsession” term skews the view even further off base.  “Persistent” is likely the sole nugget of truth in the whole definition.  My niche topics of interest are certainly not “disturbing” to me, nor are they likely to be to anyone else around me; if anything, my loved ones are apt to regard them with a mild curiosity, and (very) occasionally a minor annoyance.

An obsession often creates an air of anxiety; consider the stereotypical scenario of a guy obsessed with a certain girl.  If the obsession is strong enough, he can’t eat, sleep, or carry out his daily tasks (such as his job, for example). Everything in his life revolves around the girl he’s obsessed with.  He might have pictures of her on his walls or recordings of her voice that he listens to over and over again.  If he acts on his impulse (I’m making the assumption that they’re there), then he might try to steal glimpses of her through a bedroom window or follow her around during the day, and he might get in trouble for being a “peeping tom” or a stalker.

My interests, however, don’t resemble that scenario at all.  Rather than making me anxious, engaging in my interests can actually help me sleep.  They soothe and calm me.  I don’t get wrapped up in a frenzy while engaging in them or thinking about them.

There is also nothing “unreasonable” about my interests or their ideas.  So I like music and digital art.  So I collect scientific research papers.  So what?  It doesn’t cost anything, nor do many of my collections take up space (my musical, digitally artistic, and scientific literary collections are all on computer).

My interests do not dominate my thoughts the way that is consistent with an obsession.  It’s not like I can’t think about–or talk about–anything else.  It’s not like I can’t set my other interests aside and focus on my daily work.  It’s not like I can’t get anything else done.  If my interests were indeed obsessions, none of that would be true; my life outside of the interest would have come to a full stop.

Obsessions also often carry an aspect of compulsion or even addiction; stripped of an addiction without proper support in place, the person begins to display symptoms akin to withdrawal.

Conversely, for me, it’s all about relaxation and curiosity.  I want to learn, focus, explore.  And I want to do so in depth, with a sense of completeness.  I don’t want pieces of the picture, I want the whole picture.  I want to connect dots.  I want to reach understanding.  I want to feel solid in my knowledge.  Tidbits and soundbites just don’t do it for me.  They’re pointless and unsatisfying.  It’s like, what’s the point of spending time gathering a bunch of soundbites and headlines?  Meh.  Give me the whole story, or don’t bother me with it.

I’m also not addicted to anything.  I have plenty of interests.  If my internet connection went down (hello Monsoons and thunderstorms in South Texas!), then fine–I’ll just grab a book and read.  Or if my music player is charged, I’ll listen to music.  Or I’ll walk around.  I might be a little miffed at the unavailability of my internet, but that has much more to do with a sudden demand to task-switch than it does the loss of any addictive “fix”.  Once my brain has made the switch and I’ve successfully engaged in another activity, I’m not miffed anymore; in fact, I won’t usually dive for my computer once I realize the internet is back up.  Instead, I’ll find a Stopping Point in my “replacement” activity and complete another task-switch before I re-engage in my internet-based activity.

I would like to see the “obsession” association fall out of favor.  It’s not accurate.  It’s not nice.  It lacks understanding.  It drips with judgment and sensationalism, two concepts that serve no constructive purpose and only intensify ignorance.

Over and out. 🙂


Related Posts:

Because Rainbows! A Tale of ‘Special Interests’ ~ December 3, 2016

Hi. I’m Aspie / autistic, and I collect things ~ December 1, 2016

Sifting Through the US CDC’s Official Diagnostic Criteria for Autism ~ Part B (2-4): Restricted, Repetitive Patterns of Behavior ~ October 15, 2016

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(Image Credit: Cyril Rolando)

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26 Comments

  1. Then at the other end of the spectrum, at “classic autism”, we have King Ben who *does* have obsessions. They may last a few days, weeks, months or years. Whatever the object of his obsession is, he *must* have it. Currently he likes dice.🎲 He’s been watching Jumanji, he wants dice. Not one pair. We’ve given him at least ten pair in various colors. We’ve put dots on every kind of cube he can come up with. I’ve made more cubes out of paper, cardboard and foam. It’s still not enough. He needs more dice. He’ll ask for more dice all day. It’s like a song stuck in your head that won’t go away😖. It disrupts him and us😧. There most definitely is a difference between special interests and obsession. My poor kiddo, unfortunately, has the obsession sometimes.😕 💞🌻💖😎

    Liked by 4 people

      1. We tell him all the time he’s lucky he’s cute or….😝 Sometimes he’s just an 8yr old being a bratty kid. Sometimes it’s definitely his neurology & he can’t help it. It’s when I can’t tell if he’s being bratty on purpose that I get most frustrated. I usually err towards autism. He *is* after all the King👑. I am merely his servant 😂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes! Well said! ❤ I can certainly attest to my interests, while unusually focused, are what calm me and bring me happiness. I wouldn’t classify them in the obsession range. Now, my kiddos, when they were younger, had their things I’d put more on the level of King Ben there. 🙂 They still have their strong attachments now, but, I think as they grow, they are learning to parlay their interests into soothing, productive activities. It’s a neat process to watch. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s *super*-cool, my lovely! Thank you for adding your perspective, too. 🙂 It’s fun to watch them grow and evolve, isn’t it? 🙂 ❤

      Truthfully, I agree with both of y'all; I probably was a bit closer to King Ben when I was younger, too. Growth and evolution often temper things. Hopefully this will calm things down for you too, Grandma! ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I go through quite often short sharp obsessions that take over. For the past two weeks had a total fixation/obession left me feeling mentally drained, I hate these times because they are normally associated with anxieties around of lose of control X

    Liked by 1 person

  4. i wonder how many women have gender-typical interests, fake it and pass as NT? like, follow fashion, popular culture, have trendy hair, do whatever other women of their geo area, age and socioeconomic group do? obsessing over fashion, accessories, haircuts and celebrities probably wouldn’t ring anyone’s bells, yet i suppose those could all be socially masked interests…

    as i get older i’m learning to celebrate my esoteric interests. keeping many of them approachable (cooking, gardening, knitting, running..) so if people want to try talking about those, i’ll try an information exchange based small talk attempt. the rest of the interests can be so esoteric that i love when i accidentally find people who love the same kind of things (tech specs and sounds of some airplanes, assistive tech, unusual languages etc). so much more interesting to ponder over etymology of something than trying to understand the point of a $300 haircut

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the way you think! And I think you’re on to something. Maybe some of the “obsessions” attributed to (and pathologized in) some Asperger’s/autistic people might (in some cases) only be pointed out because they’re different from those of most NT people. It’s true that the NT world has obsessions of its own – you mentioned fashion and pop culture – yes! 👏🏼👏🏼. Stuff like sports and celebrities – just baffles me. Sports are a *hobby*, world! And socialites are regular people; they’re not even always beautiful people. And most of them certainly aren’t *nice* people. Or even talented or genuine people. Yet, society seems to be hung up on these topics and people. They don’t see it as an obsession merely because it’s so common, and thus, accepted without question. You’re totally spot-on! Thank you for your comment 😊👍🏼💙

      Liked by 2 people

      1. i totally forgot sports. and cars. guys can have so many gender-typical interests that they can do similarly and noone will find it weird they obsess over american football or regular football teams, sports superstars, cars etc. or they can go on and about something neat like james may in disassembler (i think that’s the name of that show? he takes apart stuff, then just puts it back together and talks smoothly. like vacuum cleaners, blenders etc. def characteristics of good aspies there), and as long as those interests are typical to age and gender… go figure

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I find the diagnostic criteria partly wrong and partly difficult to understand. First of all, when it comes to those special interests, “highly restricted” is wrong in my experience. If you’re hugely interested in something, one thing leads to another, it mushrooms, or someone has compared it to fractals. It’s all connected but it expands. The thing that has me puzzled is the “abnormal focus” which is explained by “attachment to unusual object”. What is an unusual object? An interest in bricks might be unusual, but bricks aren’t. Or do they mean unusual subject? But then it’s partly a numbers game and partly cultural factors. An interest is then only unusual because fewer people have this interest and it’s considered uncool in the prevailing culture. It’s nothing to do with the subject of the interest itself.
    (Note: I have no experience of “obsessions” like King Ben’s, so I can’t speak to those.)

    Liked by 3 people

  6. “I can definitively say that I have a wide variety of subject areas of intense interest.”

    Me, too. The last time someone told me I have a narrow range of interests, I demanded to know THEIR definition of “narrow.” Didn’t get an answer, but I felt better for saying it.

    I admit that one of my interests — something that would be called a useful PROFESSIONAL SKILL in any non-autistic person — is probably a bit odd, but I’m not obsessed with it. (Contrary to what some people fear, I do NOT “silently correct the grammar” of blog posts I read.) My level of interest, too, would be considered perfectly normal in a neurotypical person. I’ve encountered a few people who were more than happy to make use of my “special interest,” but they then told me how weird — not in a good way — I am for having it. (The book quote that comes to mind is, “Don’t all me names for being what you’ve paid me to be.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, the hypocrisy is headache-inducing, isn’t it? Gah. What is up with people?? They use you and then bash you. 😡. I want to ask them on what planet is that remotely acceptable?? I’m sorry you’ve had to go through that 💖💖

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I totally get this. And I don’t like at all the way many of these definitions are written. It seems they come from people who have no idea what being a person with asperger’s or authism is or feels like. I don’t like the way they’re being ostracised. But it speaks volumes about the people who actually wrote those definitions – they just don’t know. These definitions need to be written by people like you, living the life of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Hello! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Many thanks

    Like

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