Autistic Special Interests are narrow, but deep and passionate, interests in topics or subjects. What do they mean for families of autistic kids?
What are autistic special interests?
While many people are very passionate about something, an Autistic Special Interest is not just a hobby. It’s something more. If you haven’t experienced this yourself, it’s hard to describe and understand, but anyone who has been enraptured by the hold of a special interest knows this firsthand!
Studies have shown that 75% to 95% of autistic people have special interests, and having these are one of the criteria for knowing someone’s autistic. (informal eval post)
In traditional diagnostic models, these Special Interests (or SpIns) are called “restricted behaviors.” Other terms used include obsessions or fixations.
These words, for many, imply an abnormal or other-ness to having these interests. Since we use the Neurodiversity Model of Autism, we don’t assign a positive or negative value to Special Interests. They just are.
However, as you’ll see later in this post, SpIns can have an amazingly positive affect for autistic kids.
Why do autistic people have special interests?
SpIns are inherent in autistic people. They come naturally, and because they are self-motivated and intrinsic, the ability to concentrate on them and learn massive volumes of information about them is amazing.
Even kids that find it difficult to concentrate on other things like schoolwork will often be able to dedicate an intense amount of time and concentration to their special interests.
These interests are often very important and meaningful to the individual.
Parents have told us that when their kid talks about their special interest, they become really engaged, enthusiastic, and will often be able to recite many facts from memory.
Even young children can show complex thought processes and varied communication skills when they’re talking about special interests. In addition, autistic adults describe their special interests mostly in positive ways.
Calming, positive, and interesting, a break or reprieve from other demands…the lived autistic experience is often that special interests are a positive thing in one’s life.
What should I do about my kid’s special interests?
There’s lots of advice for parents of autistic kids out there. Some will say that special interests are too narrow and will “hijack family life.” Others warn that allowing kids to have special interests will cause your kid to throw tantrums.
With even more doom and gloom, some even say that SpIns prevent autistic kids from learning.
These things, when you really think about it, are complete hyperbole – “exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.”
All of these negative ways to view someone’s likes and passions are one perspective, and unfortunately one that isn’t helpful in raising a happy, authentic autistic kid.
Instead of using purposefully negative language, let’s use purposefully neutral language. How can families talk about their autistic kid’s special interests without automatically making it seem like a problem?
Here’s some examples.
- Autistic kids sometimes love to talk about their special interests….and nothing else.
- In non-autistic social environments like most schools or daycares, autistic kids can have trouble relating to others due to their intense focus on their SpIn.
- However, when people meet others who are similarly passionate about their special interest, they can form friendships with them rather quickly!
- Kids have an amazing capacity to learn about their special interests.
Understanding and Accepting Special Interests
When we’re REAL about someone’s special interests, we can view the situation logically.
Understanding means that we can make informed decisions.
Accepting means we’ll make confident ones.
When cultivated…when encouraged…when fully participated in…families can help autistics learn so much from their special interests.
It’s not always about the interest itself. It’s also about:
- Asking questions we’re truly curious about, and then figuring out how to find the answers
- Fitting new pieces of information into what we already know
- Solving problems
- Making sense of complex information
- Dedication to see something through
Autistic people have often turned their special interests into careers. (Hello, also me, your writer! :))
But even when they don’t turn into careers, here’s what they do for us:
- Build self confidence
- Problem solving skills
- Building expertise
- Building a community with others who are interested in the same thing
The foundation to build upon your autistic kid’s special interests is already there. Whenever they are, whatever co-occurring conditions or disabilities they have, you can help them cultivate their special interest.
When YOU as their caregiver take interest in their special interest, it shows that you respect them. If they bring you along on their journey alongside it, it shows you they trust you.
Common special interests for autistic kids, adolescents, and teens
There are some common and even stereotypical autistic special interests, but individuals may have extremely specific or unique or quirky interests. Here’s a list of ones we’ve seen in ourselves, friends, colleagues, or on the internet.
- Animals in general or a specific animal
- Art, a specific kind of art, art history
- Bands, musical artists, genres, or groups
- Books, in general, a specific book or series or author
- Calligraphy or handwriting
- Cars or other vehicles such as trucks, heavy machinery
- Chess, checkers
- Clothing and fashion
- Coding, coding languages, web design or app building
- Collecting items: a specific brand of statuettes, postcards
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Sports, a specific sport, sports statistics and facts
- Movies, specific movies
- Nature, being outside, hiking, camping, backpacking
- Plants and gardening
- Science, a specific subject in science, a research topic
- TV shows, series
- Video games, in general or specific games
- Writing – fiction, nonfiction, stories, poetry
In research conducted by AuEdu, we’ve asked adult autistics what they’ve wanted most from parents. Here’s the two most popular answers to that question:
- Help building self esteem
- Understanding social rules and dynamics
Cultivation of special interests does both!
When you as a caregiver are truly interested in helping them with their special interest, they will feel valued, respected, and trusted. Then, when you help them find community (online or offline), they’ll practice social dynamics with like-minded people.
Want more information on how to do this? Check out our online Autism 101 for Families class.