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Special Interest

I don’t know who invented the phrase “special interest.” Probably some researcher. Autistic people don’t really love the term because the term “special” has become tied so closely with terms like “special needs,” which we resent.

Nevertheless, somewhere down the line “special interest,” commonly shortened to SpIn (“spin”), became the term for the characteristically-autistic tendency to develop an obsession with something specific and often obscure.

Some special interests are short lived, and some last the lifetime of the person; but, however long they last, they are intense, delightful, and a vital part of autistic culture.
So integral are special interests to autistic culture that autistic people will post about feeling depressed and unmotivated because they don’t have an active SpIn at the moment.

7 Cool Aspects of Autistic Culture » NeuroClastic

Having a special interest is like having a crush or being newly in love. It is consuming and delightful. We love to share our special interests and a common example of autistic empathy is encouraging others to talk in great detail- “infodump”- about their SpIns.

It is considered a sign of caring and friendship to encourage someone to talk to you about their SpIn- whether or not you actually share their interest- because nothing makes an autistic person happier than discussing, learning about, or sharing about, their SpIn.

It is also quite acceptable in autistic culture to “infodump” on a topic whenever it happens to come up. To autists (an insider short-hand for autistic people), the sharing of knowledge and information is always welcome.

7 Cool Aspects of Autistic Culture » NeuroClastic

One almost universal trait of autism is what is known as the ‘special interest’ or ‘hyperfixation’, as I prefer to call it. When in the process of diagnosis, autistic people might be asked about topics, hobbies or interests that are particularly important to them, that are a refuge when feelings of stress are high, or all-consuming. As far as the autistic community is concerned, I believe that having hyperfixations is entirely normal and healthy, and many autistic people celebrate their interests and take pleasure in the fact they have these hobbies that mean so much to them, proud of the knowledge and understanding they have of these varied topics. These hyperfixations can be on any subject imaginable; the stereotype, of course, is trains and locomotives, with Pokémon and video games generally bringing up the rear. However, this is mostly a relic of the extremely male-centric world of autism research and discussion that dates back to the twentieth century, and is not very useful now, when we are increasingly aware of the huge diversity within the autistic community.

Learning From Autistic Teachers (pp. 30-31)

There is, in fact, a growing body of research evidence to support the idea that, despite a few drawbacks, enabling autistic children to have access to and develop their areas of interest is highly beneficial for their education and broader inclusion in school (Gunn and Delafield-Butt 2016).

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children (p. 99)

The reality is that if it exists, you can reasonably assume there will be an autistic person to whom that thing is the subject of intense obsession and time spent, from blankets to drain covers (both of these are special interests of people in my acquaintance) and pretty much anything in between. When engaging in a special interest, autistic people are typically calmer, more relaxed, happier and more focused than they would otherwise be – for many, it is a form of release or even self-medication: a well-timed foray into a special interest can stave off meltdown and be a generally extremely positive force in an autistic person’s life.

But one thing is particularly important to my purposes here: our hyperfixations adore company, and if an autistic person is given the opportunity to share their passion for the subject with friends, relatives or complete strangers, then you can expect high levels of enthusiasm, enormous amounts of data and information to be delivered, and impressive levels of knowledge. In short, if you want to be taught something, you can do a lot worse than be taught about it by an autistic person for whom it is one of their special interests. I have been taught about various subjects by openly autistic people and the experience has invariably been truly fantastic, and my understanding of the topic afterwards deep and thorough.

Learning From Autistic Teachers (pp. 30-31)

Autistic people created the concept of fandom. In his book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman describes how Autistic nerds in the early 1900s traveled across the country by car, on foot, and even by hopping trains in order to meet people who shared their niche interests.

Autistic people are also a foundational part of most fandoms and conventions centered around shared hobbies—we devote a lot of energy to finding and creating spaces where we can interact with people who share our interests, and within nerdy fandom spaces, social norms tend to be more forgiving and relaxed. It turns out that special interests aid us in becoming more outgoing, well-rounded individuals.

This frequently plays out in fandoms and nerdy communities, where neurodiverse people with mutual special interests find one another, socialize, and sometimes begin to unmask.

Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity (p. 153, 218)

The biggest practical thing to take away from this is the importance of meeting the child, or adult, where they are. This is not an insight unique to the monotropism perspective, but nothing else I’ve seen demonstrates with such clarity why it’s so crucial. Treat interests as something to work with. Recognise what someone’s passionate about and learn how to become part of the attention tunnels which come with monotropic focus, rather than trying to just reach in and pull the person out of the flow states that are so important to us. Never pathologise ‘special interests’, and don’t assume that autistic interests are ‘restricted’  – there are plenty of ways to get us interested in new things, it’s just that they mostly involve taking existing interests and building on them.

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist

Listening to the monotropic people in your life infodump about their SpIns is a love language.

Is there something you’re not telling me
You’re not telling me what floats your boat
It can be anything you want it to be
Only you can decide what floats your boat

Let me tell you what floats my boat
It’s writing songs that change the world
Maybe just a little bit I said just a little bit
Can you please tell me what floats your boat
That’s all I want to know

Is there something you’re not telling me
It’s up to you

Maybe I can help you float your boat
We’ll write a song to sing along
And let it float away let it float away
Anything can float your boat
That’s all I want you to tell me
So everyone can see

--Floats Boat by Josephmooon

Stimpunk Ronan is lyricist for Josephmooon, a distributed, multi-age, neurodiverse band. Floats Boat is about special interests and inviting others to infodump.

Neurodiversity rocks! We make rock ‘n’ roll and inclusive education.

Embrace the obsession. Special interests are “intimately tied to the well-being of people on the spectrum“. “Special interests have a positive impact on autistic adults and are associated with higher subjective well-being and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure.” “In my study, I found that when the autistic children were able to access their intense interests, this brought, on the whole, a range of inclusionary advantages. Research has also shown longer-term benefits too, such as developing expertise, positive career choices and opportunities for personal growth. This underscores how important it is that the education of autistic children is not driven by a sense of their deficits, but by an understanding of their interests and strengths. And that rather than dismissing their interests as ‘obsessive’, we ought to value their perseverance and concentration, qualities we usually admire.” “…the autistic children in my study were turning to their strong interests in times of stress or anxiety. And there has certainly been a lot of research which shows that autistic children and young people find school very stressful. So it might be the case that when this autistic trait is manifested negatively in school, it is a direct result of the stresses that school creates in the first instance.” “[E]nabling autistic children to engage with their strong interests has been found to be predominantly advantageous, rather than deleterious, in school environments.” “Furthermore, longer-term benefits have been associated with the pursuit of intense interests, with relatively few negative effects overall, which in themselves might only occur if autistic people are pressured to reduce or adapt their interests.” “Having intense or “special” interests and a tendency to focus in depth to the exclusion of other inputs, is associated with autistic cognition, sometimes framed as “monotropism”. Despite some drawbacks and negative associations with unwanted repetition, this disposition is linked to a range of educational and longer-term benefits for autistic children.” “Though they come with challenges, enthusiasms often represent the greatest potential for people with autism. What begins as a strong interest or passion can become a way to connect with others with similar interests, a lifelong hobby, or, in many cases, a career.

We’re Autistic. Here’s what we’d like you to know.

🐇 …when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by…

Further reading,