Autism and special interests (and the difference from hobbies)

This topic is long overdue. I’m autistic. I have special interests. It’s a diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) for autism spectrum disorder.

Sprouted green bean by @dashofjane

Special interests according to the DSM-5

Special interests are referenced like so:

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).

Special interests vs. hobbies

According to Merriam-Webster, this is the definition of a hobby:

a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation

Keywords for special interests: intensity or focus.

Special interests fulfill a specific need, too—they’re how we recoup, or recover spoons lost. They bring a specific sort of pleasure I can’t quite articulate.

A hobby may be something a person cultivates over several years; a special interest makes them want to know everything about it they can get their hands on.

Hobbies don’t have to be done like special interests; autistics don’t need them like they need special interests. Special interests need to be done—we need to do them and talk about them and partake in them and share them, and however else they can be verbed into action.

My undivided attention is awarded to a special interest, whereas a hobby may be “meh”.

Some hobbies of my own: bowling, Pilates.

Some special interests of my own: writing, blogging, TV/movies/film (that whole industry), free-from foods and how to cook with them, gardening, reading/books, marketing/SEO, branding, symbolism, cats. Some autistics’ special interests include autism, but I’m meh on the topic. It interests me until it gets more technical than my level of understanding.

In elementary and middle school, my special interests were marbles and Polly Pockets. My senior year of high school, I was fascinated by dice and poker chips to the point of having a dice birthday cake. My dad also made me a marble die, which I use today as a paperweight.

More recently, I briefly had a special interest in Instagram grids, wherein an image stretches across multiple posts. The interest is more on the back burner now, possibly non-existent, because I realized it doesn’t keep that effect when you post more photos.

13th Annual Butterfly Festival

A common misconception is that butterflies were a special interest, but such originated from one photo I personally took from the farm, and the painting I did in art class in high school of abtract photo realism that set it off…I’d only chosen that photo, because it seemed the easiest…everything else was plants or really complicated animals with fur or feathers.

Special interests can be too much

They can take over my life, I tell you.

Special interests make me forget about/ignore my needs to eat, drink, shower, use the toilet, blink—the list goes on. As a result, my eating disorder is not helped; malnutrition is difficult to keep under control; and I often suffer from sleep deprivation (not a great addition to my sleep disorders).

Special interests can also be dangerous, like when they happen upon a person.

How do you get/find a special interest?

They find us! The best way I can think to describe special interests and how they become such is by relating it to falling in love:

You spend many days with someone until you “wake up” and think, “Woah, I can’t live without this person.” You realize they’re as vital to your well-being as oxygen.

Thus…

When special interests leave…

…it’s like a bad breakup, or worse—a death. Some special interests are so much a part of me that, when they’re no longer such (including if they drop down to hobby status), I mourn for them. It’s devastating—this thing that once brought me joy brings me joy no longer, won’t charge my body’s batteries, won’t protect me from the dangers and stresses and overwhelm of the world.

But some special interests come and go.

I call them “fleeting fascinations”, because they’re fleeting. They remind me of a stray deer in a field, fleeing when startled. Like a boomerang, they’ll eventually return to that vicinity.

Some special interests are here and gone forever, some stick around, but some come and go like an on-again/off-again relationship.

And sometimes we just need a break.

It’s like if you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life and nothing else. I don’t always want to do a certain special interest, nor do I need to do it always. Some, yeah, I’d love to 24/7, and I definitely prefer special interests-related activities over non ones.

But sometimes we just need a break.


Special interests are unpredictable, though, something I think causes issue among allistic people, who I’ve noticed seem to maintain their interests over time and in small bursts.

The odd thing many allistic people don’t realize is how easily (and possible!) autistics can become experts in their special interests. Generally speaking, allistics have a mindset of only being able to credibly master one thing. They seldom hold much trust in people of expert status in multiple fields.

I think, if we could overcome that prejudice as a society of humans, autistics would stand a chance in being taken seriously when it comes to their expertises—their special interests.

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