According to the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), 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.
That’s a mouthful! In plain English, they are unusually strong interests. They’re obsessions. We think about them day and night. We can focus on them for hours, forgetting everything around us. Personally, I really, really like mine!
A special interest can be anything from reading to a preoccupation with a whole host of things such as sharks, automobiles, vacuums (a former vac collection owner myself), etc. I worked with a student whose special interest was calendars. During choice time, he would bypass the games and I-pads for the box of calendars the teacher saved for him.
It can be a broad focus such as dancing, or be narrowly focused on only one particular type of dancing. They appear to be the same as people’s hobbies. But what makes it a “special interest” in the autism criteria is the focus and intensity. When it affects every aspect of one’s life, or is sought after with strong intensity to the exclusion of everything else, it is considered a “special interest”.
My “special interest” when I was growing up was soap operas. I spent most of my winter, spring, and summer school breaks in soap opera land consuming hours of soap sitting on my couch potato. I recall once having a meltdown because I had to miss a critical episode of my favorite soap. We were to visit relatives and socializing was my least favorite thing to do. You’d have thought the world was coming to an end with the way I was carrying on shedding buckets of tears.
Overall I think most of us view them as a positive thing. Electronic gadgets, such as computers, tablets, voice-activated assistants, smart phones/watches, and virtual reality glasses is one of my special interests I have long held. Shopping for and getting absorbed in my gadgets recharges my batteries. If I feel one of those awful meltdowns is coming on, sometimes spending quality time with one or more of my gadgets will help me avert one. Sometimes, that is.
Another aspect of autism related to special interests is the monologue. I am high as a kite when someone asks, for instance, about any of my latest gadget buys. I dare say more thrilled than the one who asked me. The person was NOT asking for a 60 minute commercial. I may not notice that the person is disinterested. If I do, I will reluctantly end my monologue apologizing for overtaxing the person’s ears.
Special interests are specific to the autism spectrum. Not all Autistic people have them but I think most do. Some people have one special interest while others have multiple. Some people have the same special interest(s) throughout their entire life while some people’s change over time.
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.
I have to curve one of mine down myself! My obsession with exercise began when I added to my gadget collection a smart watch that counts my steps among other things. Once I got in the routine of stepping up my step count, I over did it! So much so it has taken a toll on my health. I’m the only patient my doctor has instructed to “let up on exercise”. So I am making a good pitched effort to cut down on exercising which I know sounds strange. Well, they don’t call it AS for nothing. I am different from neurotypicals, no doubt, but not less.