First, I need to say that I hate the phrase “special interest.” It sounds demeaning or patronizing. All I can think of is a doddering old great aunt looking over my shoulder at my stamp collection and saying, “well, isn’t that special.”
I’d much rather use “obsession,” or if that’s too extreme, then “specialized interest,” which is more precisely descriptive. But the term most often used in the ASD community is special interest so I’ll use that here, cringing every time I type it.
Okay, with that bit of editorializing out of the way, we can talk about a topic dear to most aspies’ hearts: the special interest. According to the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome, having an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” is a core symptom of AS.
You’ll notice there are two parts to that criteria: intensity or focus. A special interest can be an intense interest in a broad subject (architecture) or a narrowly focused interest (mid-12th century Cistercian monasteries). Generally, narrowly focused interests are also intense, but a special interest doesn’t have to be stereotypically narrow to qualify.
What Does a Special Interest Look Like?
A partial list of my special interests, starting in childhood:
- Construction toys (legos, lincoln logs, tinker toys)
- Text (reading, writing, words, found text, Roget’s thesaurus)
- Guinness Book of World Records
- Baseball cards
- Sewing (making my own clothes)
- The stock market
- M*A*S*H (TV show)
- The Doors
- Star Trek:TNG
- Martial Arts
- Human detritus (abandoned places, found objects, discarded things, cemeteries)
- Zen Buddhism
- Dog training
- Astronomy, especially Messier objects
- The Choson Dynasty
- National parks
- Autism (!)
You can look at the list and think, “but everyone has hobbies, what’s so special about yours?” Like much of what differentiates an Asperger’s trait from a general personality quirk, the answer is the degree to which the trait is present.
For example, when I took up running, I didn’t just go out and jog a few times a week. I read books about training for marathons. I found workout plans online and joined a training site to get personalized drills. I learned about Fartlek and track workouts and running technique. I signed up for road races. Ten years later, I spend more on running clothes and shoes than on everyday clothes. I use a heart rate monitor and a distance tracker to record my workouts. If I go on vacation, I pack all of running stuff. I don’t just like to run occasionally; running is an integral part of my life. It fills a very specific need.
Shelter from the Storm
That’s a key differentiator between a run-of the-mill hobby and an Aspergerian special interest. Spending time engaged in a special interest fulfills a specific need for aspies. It’s more than just a pleasant way to pass the time. For me, indulging in a special interest is how I recharge myself. It’s comforting. It allows me to completely immerse myself in something that intensely interests me while tuning out the rest of the world. If you have a favorite movie that you rewatch or a book you like to return to again and again, it’s a bit like that.
Special Interests Gone Wild
The danger in special interests is that they can become consuming. They can take over every conversation, every free minute of the day, every thought, if you let them. They can be a refuge or a hiding place.
There are days when I’m so engrossed in writing and/or work (I’ve made one of my special interests into a career) that I’ll happily spend eight or ten or twelve hours at the computer. I put dinner on the stove and then forget about it until I smell it burning. The sun sets and hours later I realize the house is pitch dark. If the dog didn’t nudge my elbow when it was time for her to go out or be fed, I would forget that she existed.
Clearly this can be a problem.
Another problem can arise if the object of a special interest is socially unacceptable. When my husband read my list of special interests, he jokingly added himself to it. He was being funny, but sometimes aspies do take on another person as a special interest. If that person is a celebrity, the aspie can safely spend hours learning about and admiring that person from afar. But if the person is someone in the aspie’s life, the special interest may be expressed as unwanted attention, harassment or stalking. (You can read an excellent first person account of this issue here: Love or Obsession: When a Person Becomes an Aspie’s Special Interest.)
So while most special interests are “harmless,” if an interest involves behavior that is illegal, taboo or a threat to your or someone else’s health or wellbeing, it may be necessary to seek help in redirecting your attention to a safer alternative.
How Does an Aspie Find a Special Interest?
Special interests tend to find us, rather than the other way around. I have no idea what has drawn me to many of my special interests over the years. Most are things that I have an intense but inexplicable fascination with.
Take abandoned places. I can’t explain what the lure is, but I can spend hours roaming an old townsite or quarry. I’m especially intrigued by abandoned psych wards. I can easily get lost exploring websites like this one: 10 Abandoned Psych Wards Photographers Love Sneaking Into
Like writing, reading, and martial arts, my interest in abandoned places and things has been with me since childhood. But other interests have come and gone over the years. A special interest often arises suddenly, becomes intense for a period (months or years) then disappears just as quickly. My collecting-related interests from childhood were like that. I would spend hours organizing, sorting and rearranging my coins, stamps and baseball cards. I’d talk my parents into driving me to collector’s shows, my tattered value guide tucked under my arm, bouncing with excitement at the prospect of filling a hole in one of my collections.
Then, when my interest in one of my collections suddenly dried up, I’d pack my binders and reference books and collecting paraphernalia away in the closet where they’d sit collecting dust while I spent hours comparing annual editions of the Guinness Book of World Records to see which records had changed or clipping articles about M*A*S*H from magazines so I could add them to my scrapbook.
How Much is Too Much?
Special interests are important to most aspies’ happiness and perhaps to our mental health. If I go through a period where I can’t engage in my special interests, I get agitated and spend a lot of time thinking about what I’d like to be doing. For me, and for a lot of aspies, a special interest is our preferred way of de-stressing, recharging and just plain enjoying ourselves.
But like any good thing, it’s possible to overdo it and veer into unhealthy territory. I think it’s safe to say that a special interest has become too consuming when it keeps you from taking care of daily responsibilities (school, work, hygiene), negatively impacts your health (lack of sleep, poor eating habits), or has a significant negative impact on loved ones (limited social contact, financial burden).
However, there is one case where you get to pursue your special interest all day, five days a week, and society gives you an approving thumbs up: when you turn a special interest into a career. Suddenly, you’re no longer a geek who knows too much about C++ programming, production switchers or eighteenth century fashion. You’re a computer programmer, an audio equipment repair technician or a museum curator. Big difference, right?
I’ve been lucky enough to do this twice, making it perfectly acceptable to dedicate most of my waking hours to a favorite subject. I’ve read and heard about a lot of aspies who’ve done the same with their lifelong special interests. It’s certainly not possible for everyone with Asperger’s to turn a special interest into a job or career, but when it does work out that way, you get to be one of the lucky people who earns a living doing what you love.
For another perspective on having a special interest feels, check out Focusing on Special Interests by Jeannie Davide-Rivera who blogs about Asperger’s at Aspie Writer. I especially enjoyed learning about her first special interest, because we shared some favorite baseball players in common as children.