Published on March 26th, 2013 | by matt0
Autistic Interests: Why We Love What We Love
The passion that autistic people can have for their interests can often be an incredible sight to see. Autistic interests vary wildly and often centre on topics that may seem odd to many people, and the intensity and dedication we show in what we love can be astounding. With this series of articles I hope to give some insight into the way in which our passions come about and how we display our affection for what we like. I’d also like to show why our interests should not be discouraged and in fact often be praised, the problems with how society rates our hobbies, and how sometimes these interests can become unhealthy.
Having a hobby or personal interest is a healthy and relaxing part of most people’s lives, and this is no different for those of us with ASD. The differences between what many would call a “normal” interest and the interests of those with autism are actually very small. These include the subjects that we chose or don’t choose and the intensity which we can show for them.
Having a hobby or personal interest is a healthy and relaxing part of most people’s lives, and this is no different for those of us with ASD
A New Love
When growing up, children will often become interested in the things that they are exposed to as part of a “normal” upbringing. Boys will be given toy cars and wear blue, girls will be given dolls and pink dresses. They will be introduced to games, sports and media that is deemed suitable for their age, gender, and the society around them (country, area, religion, parents interests e.t.c) and are expected to become interested in these topics. The autistic mind often does not see a concept that has been introduced as something they should be interested in, and very commonly pick up on things that can seem perplexing to general society.
A child with autism may become interested in the things that would not be expected of their gender. The toys they are given may be ignored in favour of batteries, hoover’s, or trains(to give known examples). The topics we love can come from anywhere and be about any subject at all – no matter how odd or mundane they may seem to others. When moving into adolescence and into adulthood this pattern in taking on new interests often follows these examples – especially with the rising access to previously hard to obtain information, and social groups based on pretty much anything, via the internet.
A Note On “Special Interests”
These passions may evolve into the “special interests” that those with ASD are said to have. A “special interest” is a term used by those who study autism and ASD to refer to the long-term hobbies or interests we have; though the term can be argued to have no difference from what most people would see as just their own personal interest. I will from now on refer to an interest, short or long-term, as just that – an interest.
Passion For Knowledge
Many autistic people like myself tend to pick up and acquire new subjects quite often. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve become enthralled with a new idea, TV series, book, or famous historical figure and spent the next month dissecting all the information available on the subject. The intensity with which we can study a certain idea is often cited as a factor for diagnosis of ASD and is often seen in famous historical figures who are said to have been autistic.
Temple Grandin is a well-known autistic whose passion and interest in animal handling has led to huge reworking in the way cattle are led to slaughter. The story of Gary McKinnon has become a public interest in recent years for the ease in which he accessed US military computers in his search for information which he believed was being withheld and his passion for network security.
While it seem odd to others – I find a lot of relaxation and stimulation from learning about a new subject in depth and can spend hours poring over the internet, looking through books, and watching relevant movies to gain more knowledge. In a large sample of autistic people the attaining of knowledge and new information on any subject is a very satisfying activity. The act of learning, rather than the knowing a certain thing, very often seems to be a common enjoyment.
…the attaining of knowledge and new information on any subject is a very satisfying activity. The act of learning, rather than the knowing a certain thing, very often seems to be a common enjoyment
Celebrating Quirks And Breaking Taboos
From the examples shown earlier it is obvious that those with ASD have no issue taking up something that may be outside society’s ideas of “normal”. While popular subjects like sports, celebrity culture, and popular TV shows are all things that autistic people may well become interested in, it is often the case that our interests can be quite puzzling for others and not a road well travelled.
It is hard to give may examples of what may be considered “odd” for people to be interested in – we would see no reason not to be interested in something as long as it could be studied (so, everything!). While being the leading expert on a specific type of radio transistor made only in a certain factory could be seen as boring to some, it is huge fun and a potential goldmine of information to another. Some things regarded as dull by the majority of the population have been studied to such an extent in the autistic community that entire new theories have been generated that may never have been thought of before.
It is a shame that in certain trains of autism “treatment” methodologies, interests that are seen as strange are actively discouraged in order to make the “patient” fit in better. It is a frankly stupid idea that some interests are better or healthier than others because of the way in which they are regarded by a certain group of people. If the interest is something that brings joy and does no harm to others then it is just that and should be encouraged – not castigated as being wrong.
The Danger Zone
While the idea of some topics being good and some being bad is completely up to the individual, there are some cases where it is understandable to be concerned. There are always going to be parts of society that do not like being challenged on subjects they hold as sacred. Talking about religion, sexuality, and politics are three of the big no-no’s that are discouraged in polite society but all deserve discussion just as much as (if not more than, because of their previous untouchable status and therefore lack of change) any other topic.
The problem with the autistic way of thinking on these subjects is actually that of the person unwilling to discuss said issues. In some cases offence can be taken and in extreme cases people can lash out at someone merely trying to raise a good point on a big topic. It is a shame that this can happen but it is also worth noting that some issues have to be handled delicately because of other people. Children with autism especially should be made aware of how to handle these subjects without putting themselves at risk.
When Interests Become Obsessions
The way we focus on what we are passionate about and the time and energy put into them can sometimes lead to undesired results. While being able to focus on a subject for an entire day can yield amazing results, it can sometimes lead to forgoing important basic needs. It has been noted that the focus on a topic in autistic people can lead to lack of sleep, loss of appetite, and inability to focus on anything but what is at hand. At school, work, and at home this can create problems that must be addressed.
While anyone can become unhealthily attached to a subject, the specific way in which autistic people see no barrier to any subject or the time spent on it can become an issue. This is something I will address in a forthcoming article with some personal experience and advice.
The long and short of it is that while in conventional study of autism the way that we dedicate our thought and time to a subject is of interest – there is often too much emphasis placed on why it is harmful rather than why we should embrace the differences between people and highlight what can be one the most enjoyable aspects of the autistic mind.