Special interests are frequently developed by individuals with autism spectrum disorder, expressed as an intense focus on specific topics. Neurotypical individuals also develop special interests, often in the form of hobbies. Let’s learn more about this and what we can do to help autistic individuals flourish with their special interest.
What are Special Interests in Autism?
Special interests in autism refer to the passionate and often intense focus that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have on specific topics, activities, or items. This intense focus can vary greatly among individuals and can encompass a wide range of subjects, including but not limited to animals, technology, specific TV shows, schedules, or even more niche topics.
These special interests can typically provide comfort, joy, and a way to engage with the world for autistic individuals. Furthermore, they often serve as an important means of self-expression and communication. In some cases, these interests can help an autistic individual to pursue a career or academic path. However, it’s important to note that while these special interests can be a strength, they can also become a challenge if they result in exclusion or distractions of other necessary activities or interactions.
Understanding the Role of Special Interests in Autistic Individuals’ Lives
Special interests play a crucial role in the lives of many autistic individuals, acting as a source of comfort, motivation, and self-expression. These intense fascinations can make the world more predictable and manageable, offering a safe space where individuals can excel and feel in control. Special interests can also be used to stimulate learning and social interaction, as they can serve as a starting point for conversations and shared activities with others. For many, these passions can be channeled into productive educational or professional pursuits, providing a way to leverage their exceptional focus and knowledge. Despite the potential for these interests to become overwhelming or socially isolating in some cases, they are often a core aspect of an autistic individual’s identity and perception of the world around them.
Examining Why Special Interests are Characteristic of Autism
The presence of special interests is one of the key characteristics of autism due to the nature of the condition itself, which affects the way individuals process, interact with, and understand the world around them. Everyone has hobbies or specific interests of their own. In autistic indivduals, they may look more intense, more frequent, or in areas neurotypicals don’t typically find interesting. However, that is not to say it is a negative thing as autistics are individual in their own way.
Autism often influences information processing and perception, leading to enhanced focus and deep absorption in specific topics, thereby giving rise to special interests. The predictability and order associated with these special interests can also provide a sense of control and relief from the sensory and social challenges that individuals with autism frequently face. Furthermore, these interests provide an avenue for autistic individuals to express themselves and interact with others in a meaningful way. While the exact cause of these special interests isn’t fully understood, it’s believed to be a combination of the unique cognitive and sensory processing traits associated with autism. At the same time, we special interests don’t exist our lives, esepicially autistic individuals, would be very boring!
How Special Interests Benefit Autistic Individuals
Special interests can significantly benefit autistic individuals in various ways, acting as a bridge to learning, self-expression, and social engagement. The intense focus on a specific subject can serve as a powerful motivator for learning, often leading to impressive knowledge and skill in the area of interest. This can translate into academic or career success if the interest aligns with a particular field of study or job. It gives them an individualistic quality as well as a topic that brings positivity and motivation into their lives.
Moreover, special interests can offer emotional comfort and stress relief, providing a sanctuary of predictability and control in a world that can sometimes feel overwhelming due to sensory or social challenges. In terms of social benefits, sharing their passion can enable autistic individuals to engage in conversations and form connections with others who have similar interests, thereby fostering social interaction and communication skills. The positivity and self-esteem derived from the mastery and enjoyment of their special interests can also greatly enhance their overall well-being.
Addressing Challenges: When Special Interests Turn Obsessive
While special interests can be a source of joy and strength for autistic individuals, there can also be challenges when these interests become overly obsessive or limit other aspects of life. An intense focus can sometimes lead to a lack of balance, where an individual may neglect important tasks, relationships, or self-care due to their preoccupation with their special interest. It might cause a high level of distraction that interveres with their learning and development.
Additionally, this preoccupation may lead to social challenges if the individual has difficulty engaging in conversations or activities that don’t involve their particular interest. In such cases, it can be helpful to gently guide the individual towards diversifying their interests and activities, ensuring they maintain a healthy balance in their daily routine. Tools such as visual schedules or timers can be used to allocate time for their special interest while also prioritizing other necessary activities. However, it’s important to approach this with sensitivity, respecting the individual’s special interest and the significant role it plays in their life.
Harnessing Special Interests: Practical Strategies for Parents and Teachers
Harnessing special interests in a structured and beneficial manner can be a powerful tool for parents and teachers of autistic individuals. Firstly, these interests can be used as a motivational tool in teaching or learning new skills. For instance, if a child has a deep fascination for trains, educational activities can be designed around this theme, such as using train stories to improve reading skills, or train facts for learning mathematics. Furthermore, special interests can be used to foster social skills. Encouraging the child to share their knowledge or participate in community groups with similar interests can provide valuable opportunities for social interaction. It’s also important to set healthy boundaries. Structured schedules can help manage the time spent on the interest, ensuring a balance with other essential activities. However, this must be done respectfully, acknowledging the importance of the special interest to the individual. Ultimately, the goal is not to suppress the passion but to guide it in a way that promotes comprehensive growth and development.
An example we like to do that incorporates a child’s special interest in social skills is to take turns engaging in conversational topics. Sometimes autistic individuals may be too focused in their special interest topic, that may not be interesting to their conversation partner, may go on about it for a long time without observing non-verbal cues. Taking turn choosing topics and observing cues can incorporate these special interests when conversational skills.
Future Directions for Research on Special Interests in Autism
Despite the well-recognized association between special interests and autism, there is still much to be explored in terms of the neuroscientific basis, the impact on autistic individuals’ lives, and the best ways to support these interests for beneficial outcomes. Future research could delve deeper into understanding the neurological and psychological underpinnings that lead to the development of such intense interests. More extensive studies on the range and types of special interests across diverse populations within the autism spectrum could also be beneficial. Moreover, research could focus on examining the long-term impacts of special interests on various aspects of life, such as academic performance, employment prospects, social relationships, and overall well-being. Investigating effective strategies to further include and explore special interests in educational and therapeutic contexts can also provide valuable insights for practitioners. Ultimately, a more nuanced understanding of special interests in autism could not only contribute to scientific knowledge but also pave the way for more targeted and effective support for autistic individuals.
Valuing Special Interests as Integral to Autistic Identity
Special interests in autistic individuals are more than just hobbies or pastimes; they form an integral part of their identity and personal narrative. For many autistic people, these special interests provide a sense of comfort, structure, and mastery. They offer a unique lens through which they interact with and understand the world. Because of this deep personal significance, it’s essential that these interests are valued and respected by others. Rather than viewing them as obsessions to be controlled or behaviors to be ‘normalized’, acknowledging them as meaningful and significant aspects of an autistic person’s identity is key. Parents and caregivers should never suppress these special interests but try to encourage them to expand their interests and incorporate them into their daily routines. This approach promotes acceptance and understanding, both crucial for the autistic community. Encouraging autistic individuals to explore and engage with their special interests not only supports their personal growth but also fosters a society that appreciates neurodiversity, where autistic individuals can be themselves fully and authentically.
What counts as a special interest autism?
Special interests in autism are often characterized by the level of intensity and the amount of time individuals dedicate to their chosen subjects. These can vary widely from person to person, spanning topics such as animals, music, books, film or TV series, maps, numbers, technology, and much more. What makes these interests “special” is not necessarily the nature of the interest itself, but the degree of focus, detail, and passion with which the individual pursues it.
What does a special interest feel like?
A special interest for an individual with autism often feels like a compelling draw or fascination that provides immense joy, comfort, and a sense of mastery. It’s an intense focus that can provide structure and predictability, making it a tool to navigate and understand the world around them in more detail than a general interest would
What defines a special interest?
A special interest is defined by its intensity, the amount of time dedicated to it, and the level of detailed knowledge accrued about the subject. Particularly prevalent among individuals with autism, these interests go beyond a typical hobby in their depth and the pleasure, comfort, and structure they provide to the individual’s life.
How long can a special interest last?
The duration of a special interest can vary greatly from one individual to another, ranging from several weeks to a lifetime. Some individuals may switch between a few interests over time, while others may maintain a single interest for many years, with intensity levels varying throughout.
Janice is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Special Education. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from Queen’s University, Belfast. She has worked with and case managed children and youth with autism and other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in home and residential setting since 2013.