If you have recently discovered you or someone in your life is autistic, you may know the term “special interest.” In the neurodivergent community, special interests, sometimes referred to as “SpIns” for short, are often a big part of our identities. In one of my previous blog posts, I outlined many neurodivergent terms, one of which was “special interest.” Special interests are a topic, collection, or person that an autistic person finds immense joy in researching, engaging with, fantasizing about, and/or talking about. SpIns can be a useful coping skill and can bring autistic people comfort, self-soothing, and joy.
What Special Interests are
When someone lacking knowledge about autism envisions an autistic child, they might picture a little white boy fixated on trains. However, special interests (SpIns) can encompass a variety of things and evolve over one’s lifetime. It could revolve around a person, such as a favorite singer or actor. It could involve a collection like rocks or coins. Sometimes it focuses on an activity like dancing or soccer. It’s also common for one’s special interest to center on a topic like the Titanic or cats.
Some individuals maintain special interests throughout their entire lives, while others witness their childhood SpIns transform into adult interests. There are even cases where special interests retire and change. Regardless of the nature of the SpIn, the crucial aspect is that autistic individuals can dedicate boundless time and energy to their special interest, deriving joy, energy, and self-soothing from it.
Society punishes Special Interests
Special interests can be helpful, soothing, and amazing to invest time and energy into as an autistic person. Unfortunately, society often punishes autistic people for having them. Being “obsessed” with a specific topic, person, or thing can be perceived as “weird” or “abnormal.” Many autistic children grow up learning to mask their special interests. Other children don’t seem to have the same intense interests. As a result, autistic kids may get bullied for those interests.
For example, one of my special interests growing up was the country singer Carrie Underwood. When people saw Carrie, they thought of Teal. I was often shamed for this SpIn by people in my life, saying that it was “creepy,” “stalker behavior,” and “unhealthy idealization.” In all actuality, memorizing the order of songs on her albums and going to as many tour dates as possible simply made me incredibly happy and gave me an energy, excitement, and passion that I did not understand or have in any other aspect of my life.
Adult Special Interests can be viewed as childish
Many adults are also shamed for their SpIns being “frivolous” or “childish.” As an adult, society punishes SpIns in a different way. If an interest or passion is not monetized in our capitalistic society, it is viewed as selfish or frivolous. In the same vein, autistic adults whose SpIns are things like Pokémon or Squishmallows may be viewed as “childish,” simply because our society does not value pleasure and play the way that it should. If accepted and unmasked, SpIns can become an important part of someone’s identity. It is often what gives them the most happiness and energy.
Special Interests are an important coping skill
In Devon Price’s book, Unmasking Autism, he writes, “in studies that examine the lives of Autistic adults, engaging with special interests is positively associated with subjective well-being” (Price, 2022). He also cites research that shows special interests help autistic adults develop emotional awareness skills, coping strategies, and aid us in becoming more well-rounded individuals. Even when autistic person is extremely exhausted or in burnout, they can often find rejuvenation, passion, and energy in spending hours upon hours delving into their special interest rabbit holes. In this way, SpIns are an important coping skill for autistic people. One that many neurotypical therapists may not recognize or identify when working with neurodivergent clients.
Lean into your special interests!
If you have a love for plants, Tarot, animals, historic events, LEGOs, boy bands, stuffed animals, or anything else that society may have told you is “silly” or “weird,” lean into it! Go enjoy it, and know that it is healthy and a beautiful part of what makes you your autistic self. If you are a resident of North Carolina and would like to meet with a therapist who understands the importance of SpIns in your life, please click on this link to schedule a free consultation!