Autistic people often have an intense and passionate level of focus on things of interest. Some have suggested that these "fixations" are essentially arbitrary and lacking in any real meaning or context; however, researchers note that special interests typically focus on the mechanical (how things work) as opposed to the psychological (how people work).
It is important to note that the special interests are highly important and meaningful to the Autistic person, similar to an intense hobby.
Sometimes these interests are lifelong; in other cases, one is phased out to make room for another. In pursuit of these interests, autistic people often manifest extremely sophisticated reasoning, an intense focus, and a remarkably good memory for trivial facts. Hans Asperger called his young patients "little professors" because he thought his patients had as comprehensive and nuanced an understanding of their field of interest as university professors.
Autistic people may have little interest in things outside their special interests. In school, they may be perceived as highly intelligent underachievers, clearly capable of outperforming their peers in their field of interest, yet persistently unmotivated to do regular homework assignments (sometimes even in their areas of interest). Others may be hypermotivated to do excellent work and be considered "overachievers."
Autistic people display remarkable focus and dedication when interacting with their special interests. These traits may lead them to become highly successful in the workforce if they can find a job relating to the field.
Real Life Examples of Special Interests
These are just a few examples, as there are Autistic people who have special interests in many other topics besides the ones listed here.
- Aircraft and transportation fascinate many Autistic people, particularly trains and rail transport.
- Pets can become fixations for Autistic people. They are always around the house and do not talk or present a socially complex partner. Dogs in particular can have a calming influence on Autistics and are commonly used as service animals for this purpose.
- Certain dolls may become extremely close to an Autistic person. For instance, one that looks like them or a talking doll because it appears to interact with them, thus providing low-stress interaction that they may not be able to have with others.
- Computer games can become very addictive to the Autistic person. They provide visual stimulation minus the need for social interaction. In many cases, multiplayer games like Club Penguin, Barbie.com, or Stardoll provide a non-intimidating way to socialize "in world" while playing the game. See the Internet.
- Fantasy things such as fairies, unicorns and so on are also often a fixation. Dan Aykroyd stated that his special interests in ghosts and law enforcement inspired the movie Ghostbusters.
- Creative interests such as writing, music, and art are also common. Some Autistic people show remarkable artistic skill from a young age. Matt Savage is an example of a creative prodigy.
- Social issues may be attractive for Autistic people, due to a strong sense of morality and social responsibility. They may present complex and nuanced arguments against racism, transmisogyny, world hunger, ableism and so on. Some of these people go on to be prominent activists, such as Ari Ne'eman and Phil Gluyas.
- Cards/Sports-Facts such as baseball or football cards and scoreboard information can attract Autistic interest. It becomes a way to interact with people and their competitive instincts but not in an intimidating social way (no discussion required).
- Autism and autism rights may attract Autistic people who look first to understand themselves, then to help others. Phil Gluyas is an example of this.
- Strange things in a specific manner such as turtles, mushrooms, African dictators, the Holocaust, graffiti and so on can also attract Autistic interest.
- Voice acting is common for people with Autism to do because they can do impersonations and unusual voices well. Billy West, Corey Burton, Kyle Hebert, Christian Frates and Jacob M. Keene are examples.
It should be noted that many of these interests are also common with neurotypicals. The difference lies in the intensity of the interest.
Special Interests and Social Skills
Special interest talk can help loved ones bond with the Autistic person, and get a better sense of the Autistic person's perspectives. Loved ones can search for ways to enjoy the special interest (for example, if the daughter loves cats and the father likes to draw, they could draw cats together).
The combination of social problems and intense interests can lead to unusual social behavior, such as launching into a lengthy monologue without realizing that the other person is disinterested. The Autistic person may then be baffled when told that this is inappropriate. As they age, they will become better at handling social situations.
Sometimes parents, after reading literature from anti-autism groups, will try to stop the child from talking about their interests at all. This can be harmful to the child's psyche: the message that they get is that nobody cares about what interests them.
It is important for Autistic people to learn to understand when the other party is interested: to talk about their interests a bit, but allow the conversation subject to shift depending on what the other person wants, and to keep it reciprocal.
Autistic people should also be taught when a monologue is a good thing. Sometimes, other people will ask about the interest in hopes of learning more, and those people will encourage the monologue to continue. In that case, the Autistic person can be taught to recognize listening body language and attempts to keep the monologue going.
Encouraging Special Interests
Parents are encouraged to support their child's interests. While special interests may seem strange or random to outsiders, they are incredibly meaningful to the child. They provide a source of recreation, allow the child to develop competence in a certain area, provide a safe haven during times of stress which assists in avoiding meltdowns and sensory overloads, and improve self esteem.
- Finding books and toys related to the interest
- Talking with the child about the interest
- Before birthdays, informing relatives/partygoers about the child's special interests, so the gifts will be more meaningful
- Doing learning activities related to the interest
- Helping the autistic child join a club related to the special interest (also provides the opportunity to socialize in a less intimidating setting)
Special interests may someday turn into a successful career or hobby.
- Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S. "'Obsessions' in children with autism or Asperger syndrome. Content analysis in terms of core domains of cognition." Br J Psychiatry. 1999 Nov;175:484-90. PMID 10789283
- "A retrospective analysis of the clinical case records of 'autistic psychopaths' diagnosed by Hans Asperger and his team at the University Children’s Hospital, Vienna", K. Hippler and C. Klicpera.
- Asperger, H. (1944), Die 'Autistischen Psychopathen' im Kindesalter, Archiv fur Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, pp. 76-136.
- Snagglebox: Getting On Board With Special Interests
- Bauer S. Asperger Syndrome. The Source (2000).
- Autistic Students Take Advantage of Special Interests and Strengths
- WikiHow: How to Encourage an Autistic Person's Special Interests
- Teaching Self Advocacy in Autistic Children
- Encouraging Special Interests to Improve Skills in Autistic Children