The line between what makes an interest “special” or “obsessive,” and what makes it “normal” can be quite blurry.
Autistic people have a high propensity to become overly-fixated on:
• Common or popular topics
• Highly specific aspects of those topics
• Very unusual, strange or “weird” subject matter
“Special interests are described as ‘highly restricted, fixated interests’ that are either ‘abnormal in intensity or focus,’” begins Dr. Jessica Myszak, licensed psychologist, and director of The Help and Healing Center, whose practice is mostly autism assessment for adults.
Dr. Myszak continues, “This means that a special interest can be in something that would be unusual for a neurotypical person (ceiling fans, the sounds made by tapping on plastic bottles, etc.), or, it can be something that is a pretty common interest (i.e., horses, fantasy novels, a particular music genre) — but is more intense.”
I speak from experience. I was diagnosed with Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder in spring 2022. And let me tell you, I’m the poster child for odd, strange interests and hyperfixations.
The abnormal fixation can manifest in one, two or three basic ways.
Dr. Myszak explains, “This level of intensity might involve having difficulty stopping to focus on other life needs (work, chores, sleep); might involve frequent thoughts about the interest when engaged in other activities; and might involve talking about these interests with people who are uninterested.
“There is definitely some subjectivity in this, and psychologists and other providers may vary in their interpretation when diagnosing.
“It has been suggested that girls tend to have more intense ‘typical’ interests during childhood, which may not get recognized as readily as less typical sensory interests.”
Though an abnormal focus can manifest in the form of excessive talking about it, this doesn’t mean that if someone can talk “for hours” about a particular topic, that they’re obsessed.
Neurotypical (NT) people have been known to discuss the same topic well into the night. For example, the guide for a whale watching tour that I was on mentioned that he could discuss the surface behavior of whales “all night.”
Conversely, I have and have had special interests for which there’s not a lot to talk about.
For example, I was fascinated by window shades at age nine, but didn’t really care to talk about them.
Instead, I wanted every window in the house to have one. Our house might’ve had only one shade, and I was captivated by the shades I’d see in the windows of houses I passed when riding in a car. I wanted to be inside those homes and look at the shades – and pull them.
There was nothing to talk about. This was clearly an autistic-grade interest. It was odd as heck.
Furthermore, according to some autism threads, some Autists don’t care to talk about their intense interests; they are so endeared to these interests that sharing them would almost feel like some kind of breach.
Signs that Say Autistic-Grade Rather than NT-Grade Interest
Based on my lifelong, firsthand experience with autism, here are signs that an interest is being driven by autistic neuro-wiring.
• The subject matter is really unusual, strange or “weird.”
Another childhood interest was the way heels on shoes wore down over time.
At one time I was collecting twistie ties, those pieces of wire that are covered in plastic that hold plastic bags of bread and hamburger buns together.
I had a short-lived interest in making crayons bendable by placing them on the warm top ledge of baseboard heat registers (unwrapped, of course). This is also an example of using a toy or play-thing in a way that it’s not intended — another iconic trait of autism.
Other esoteric childhood interests included comas and the fact that so many Japanese cities ended in “i.”
• The interest is exceptionally intense; this includes for common interests in the general population.
Many NTs got caught up in the sharkmania craze of 1975 after the movie “Jaws” came out. Millions of NTs were interested in sharks – but – the neurotypical mind would much more likely “be into” only one or two components of this craze.
For instance, maybe an NT who saw the movie three times bought four tee shirts with sharks on them.
Maybe another enjoyed watching TV specials about sharks and reading up on them in the library.
Perhaps another researched shark attack statistics and visited the local aquarium. Each NT is interested in only one or two pieces of this pie. Maybe three.
I, however, went full-blown infatuation and had all the pieces of the pie covered.
This included eagerly anticipating every new newspaper delivery to snip out the latest article about the movie, cartoons depicting sharks, and stories about the sharkmania or a shark attack. I kept the huge pile of clippings in a shoebox.
I read a book called “Shark Attack” which documented, in detail, all the cases in the International Shark Attack File. I read each gruesomely-described case at least twice.
There were some cases that I spent good mental time reflecting on, from the victim’s point of view. I even wanted to be attacked by a shark to show off the scars.
My mother and a sister got sick of hearing me talk about sharks so much. I wanted a shark tooth necklace. I obtained a set of shark jaws on a mount. I bought a book on how the movie was made.
I wanted to be a shark scientist when I grew up and had a “tangential fixation” on finding out what the study of sharks was called. I wasn’t satisfied with ichthyology because this also included other species of marine life — which I wasn’t the least bit interested in.
There HAD to be a more specific term that meant just sharks! I ultimately had to settle for chondrichthyology: the study of cartilaginous marine life which includes skates and rays, which I wasn’t interested in!
I listened to the movie music soundtrack so much that I was able to play the whole thing out in my head.
I learned the names of many shark species including their Latin names. I asked some classmates if they could figure out how to spell carcharias (I got a kick out of how nobody could get it correct).
I also drew sharks — and quickly got pretty good at it.
In 1973 the city of Cleveland was gripped by the mysterious disappearance of two boys – cousins ages six and seven.
But how many 10-year-olds clipped every single newspaper article about this case and glued them to a big poster board? I’m pretty sure I was the only one!
The way an interest or hobby manifests can be a huge clue whether it’s related to autism.
Suspicious manifestations include:
#1 Learning as much as possible about it, leading to rapidly becoming an expert.
#2 Talking about it excessively; working the topic into any conversation – and especially exhibiting vast knowledge of the topic.
#3 Wanting to collect objects related to the topic.
#4 Watching every TV show or YouTube video about the subject. I’m pretty sure I’ve viewed every single YouTube of a boxer having a seizure after being knocked out.
#5 Viewing the videos over and over and over and over, including analyzing many freeze-frames. I did this with the caught-on-tape fatal luge accident of Nodar Kumaritashvili in 2010.
#6 “Constantly” thinking about the topic, including making up hypothetical scenarios, and imagining oneself being involved with the subject or experiencing a relevant situation.
I couldn’t stop imagining I myself was in that luge, approaching that fatal turn, with only one second to correct my miscalculation.
#7 Staring excessively at it in public (when applicable), including leaving a conversation to do so.
#8 A feeling of joy or elation upon exposure to the interest that’s significantly more than what a typical person would experience, or out of proportion to the context.
I’m nearly in a trance when I see a big, fat long ponytail swinging while its owner walks on a treadmill.
#9 Miscellaneous odd behaviors related to pursuing the interest.
For example, when in the throes of my wood chipper death and tree care industry infatuation, I suddenly began seeing wood chippers everywhere being towed by trucks.
I’d pull up alongside these trucks to read the tree service company name and get a look at the driver.
If I heard a wood chipper from inside my house, I’d dash outside to locate it to observe the chipping operation. Sometimes this required driving around.
#10 Writing dozens and dozens and dozens of articles about numerous components and permutations of the topic.
• The topic is very narrow, restricted or circumscribed. My real-life examples:
#1 Fascinated by window shades, but not curtains, blinds or windows.
#2 In childhood, the way some car trunks curved up at the end, but zero interest in cars or other components of cars such as the hood and seats.
#3 Intrigued by boxers seizing, but NO interest in boxing whatsoever; and no interest in other causes of seizures such as epilepsy.
#4 Intense interest in alternate spellings of female names but not surnames or other proper names.
#5 Fascinated by schizophrenia, but not other forms of mental illness.
#6 Hyperfixation on how people incorrectly use treadmills, but only average interest in other cardio equipment.
#7 Birds fatally crashing into windows, yet no interest in birds nor interest in other ways birds die.
#8 Huge ponytails and fat braids, but not other types of hairstyles.
#9 Viewing fatal vehicular crash aftermath, but not the fatal aftermath of other kinds of trauma such as gunshots, stabbings or bombings.
• Being deprived of pursuing the interest causes great distress – which wouldn’t necessarily be acted out. The distress could be internal.
• Engaging in risky behavior to pursue the interest, though this can also occur with neurotypicals (classic example with NTs: standing at edge of cliff for a selfie).
NTs often claim they’re “obsessed” with something, but in the true sense of the word, they aren’t.
They’re just very interested and enthused. My NT niece told me several times over the phone she was “obsessed” with a particular reality TV show.
But her “obsession” amounts to nothing more than viewing all the episodes and then talking about them with other fans. Maybe she’s active on a forum, too, but all of this is just normal fan-hood of a popular TV series.
Dr. Jessica Myszak, a psychologist who specializes in autism assessment for both children and adults, is the founder of Autistic Support Network. She sees clients in-person in the Chicago area and over telehealth in 31 states. Learn more about her practice at helpandhealingcenter.com.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Top image: Gzzz, CC BY-SA 4.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons