Special interests

What are specific interests?
IN BRIEF

Autistic people can have extremely intense passions known as "specific or special interests". 90% of autistic people have them. Sometimes these special interests are in subjects that might seem pointless to neurotypicals (non-autistic people), and sometimes they are in subjects that are more commonly popular. But the big difference between normal hobbies and special interests is the intensity and time that an autistic person puts into their interest. For example, if they have a total fascination with Pokémon, they will not only collect the cards, but also the various promotional items, perhaps learn the dialogue of all the films by heart, wear clothes in the likeness of their favorite characters and, above all, they will talk about this interest repeatedly with great passion and will have difficulty managing the way they communicate about their subject. Depending on the intensity of the interest, the person's skills, age, experience and ability to self-regulate, they will be more or less able to manage the space occupied by this interest.

What are specific interests in autism?

Specific or special interests are also known as “restricted interests”, but that is a less precise and less respectful term. They are a characteristic present in 90% of autistic people and are a key element in the diagnosis of autism, according to the DSM-5, the reference book in psychiatry. Specific interests can be very useful for people with autism, offering them a way to focus and relax, as well as connect with the world around them.

Why is the term “restricted interest” disrespectful and imprecise?

The term “restricted” does not take into account the diversity and complexity of interests. Indeed, these can evolve or change over time, and it’s even possible, indeed common, to have more than one specific interest at a time.

Using “restricted interest” can be pejorative or stigmatizing, as it suggests that the interests of autistic people are limited or inferior to those of non-autistic people. This is all the more common when the specific interests are out of the ordinary or strange compared with those of the neurotypical population.

Specific interests can be enriching for the autistic person or those around them, motivating and even rewarding. Using appropriate terms to describe them is therefore important.

What’s the difference between a specific interest and a passion?

Passions and specific interests can be very similar, and there is no single, precise definition of either concept, as both describe an intense and enduring focus of interest. Some special interests can evolve into passions and vice versa. However, there are some subtle differences between these two concepts.

Specific interests, though intense and long-lasting, can be experienced very differently from one person to another, and can change and evolve over time. On the other hand, they can be invasive, taking up a lot of time and energy, and sometimes preventing the person from pursuing other activities. They can also be difficult for non-autistic people to understand.

Examples of categories of specific interests:

Passions are less likely to be invasive for the person doing them, although they can be very absorbing. They can enable those who live them to engage meaningfully in something that really interests them.

Examples of categories of passions:

Positive aspects of specific interests

Exceptional skills

The time and energy autistic people devote to their specific interests can make them true specialists in their fields. They can even become experts in their field. This sometimes contributes to the prejudice of the autistic savant. Indeed, talking to a person about their specific interest can temporarily mask the other challenges they face, because when they’re in their element, their abilities often increase tenfold and their knowledge seems impressive.

Self-actualization

The strength with which the interest is experienced will enable the person to spend an enormous amount of time on a project and see it through to a successful conclusion.

Relaxation

Autism is a daily challenge that takes up a lot of space and requires considerable adaptation on the part of the person living with the diagnosis. The practice of special interest can finally give autistic people the much-needed break they deserve.

Motivation lever

It’s easy to use specific interests as a motivator towards achieving a goal. For example, a speech therapy session or dictation could be on the theme of dinosaurs, and practicing how to manage movement through a crowd could take place in a train station if the rail network is part of the interest. The autistic person themselves, depending on their age and abilities, can make use of this technique.

Scenario

Riley's specific interest is manga. As she has difficulty perceiving the importance of brushing her teeth, some other parents had advised Coralie's parents to use a points system that she could accumulate to obtain new mangas. As this concept is rather abstract and the reward far in the future, it doesn't work. Then Coralie's parents managed to find a toothbrush on the Web featuring a character she was particularly fond of. Since then, Coralie has made real progress.

To get in touch

An autistic person who shares a specific interest with others could use that as a tool for social outreach, for example through a club or some other organized or informal activity.

Important

Respect for the autistic person's specific interests is essential, and these should be valued rather than minimized or judged.

Possible negative aspects of specific interests

Invasiveness

If a specific interest prevents the person from taking care of themselves, from practicing their other activities, or hinders their personal development, the specific interest can be described as invasive and harmful. Depriving the person of their interest is not a respectful solution and will not help the person evolve towards their full potential, but it is possible to guide the person towards a certain balance, or to use creativity and initiative to combine their interest with the practice of their other activities.

Difficulties with social interaction

As social interaction is already a challenge for people with autism, and difficulties in this area are one of the mainstays of an autism diagnosis, if the person’s only topic of conversation is their specific interest, or if they talk about it too much for their peers, this can amplify the problem.

Danger to self or others

In rare cases, the practice of a specific interest can prove dangerous for the individual or those close to them. For examples we can think of illegal practices, handling dangerous objects or even talking about risky subjects on social networks. In such a situation, steps need to be taken to help the autistic person either manage their interest and adapt it, or to stop themselves from engaging with it. It’s important not to minimize the distress that this can cause them. Professional help from someone who is respectful towards the autistic client is essential. Abruptly depriving the person of their activity is very likely to lead to new problems.

Valérie Jessica Laporte

WRITER SPECIALIZING IN AUTISM (FRENCH)