The autistic community is divided with the term “special interest.”
Some say this pathologizes or infantilizes their interests, while others insist that “special” distinguishes the intensity of, type of and behavior towards the passion when compared to passions that neurotypicals (NTs) have.
The debate from both sides is compelling, but ultimately, there needs to be a term that sets the autistic special interest apart from the NT’s passion.
Those who are against special interest might say that the “special” connotes the same meaning or inferred meaning as the “special” in special needs.
I actually hate the term special needs. It clearly conveys the idea that the person using this term is afraid to just say “disabled” or name the actual disability.
It’s condescending and sends off vibes of tiptoeing on eggshells.
But special interests does not evoke any of these impressions to me.
Another argument against the term special interests is that it comes off as pathologizing – because many NTs are deep into their passions and hobbies too.
One Autistic on reddit.com asked what was the difference between a special interest in autism and, say, the NT who spends hours a day gaming?
Well, he just compared a deep intense passion with an addiction.
Others pointed out that the term special interests implies a symptom of autism, and the concept of symptom infers something bad or akin to a mental illness.
But who says we have to use the word symptom in the first place?
Why not trait, feature or characteristic? That solves the problem!
Neurotypicals Use “Special Interests” All the Time
I embrace special interests. I don’t see this as condescending or invalidating the deep focus that Autistics have on their topics of interest.
The irony is that I’d been using this term all along, BEFORE I began realizing that I was on the Autism Spectrum.
As a medical writer, I have interviewed hundreds of medical doctors for my content.
Each article includes the expert medical source’s bio, which I’d put together based on the expert’s profile page.
On occasion, I’d write that the physician “has a special interest in (fill in the blank),” or, “His special interests include (fill in the blank).”
Now of course, this doesn’t mean that these doctors are autistic.
For example, a physician may be board certified in both cardiology and integrative cardiology.
But she might have a particular focus on, say, the effect of heavily processed foods on heart health.
I might then put in her bio, “Her special interest is the effects of a highly processed diet on the heart.”
There is one surgeon in particular for whom I kept using “special interest” to identify him after his first quoted statement in my articles.
This went as follows: “…says Alex Little, MD, a thoracic surgeon with a special interest in esophageal and lung cancer.”
He’s an expert source for dozens of my articles, and the ID reads this way for every single one of them.
This was before I began thinking of myself as autistic and learning about special interests in autism.
I’ve also seen special interests in the professional bios of NTs on other sites.
Now, maybe by chance, some of those bios were for Autistics (since we are everywhere!) – but it was obvious that the bio composition was created in an NT-type format.
What shall we call autistic hyperfocuses?
Actually, that could also be hyperfoci. Anyways, I use “special interests” all the time in my content.
It’s a search engine keyword, whether you like it or not.
However, Google algorithms favor content that uses different words or phrases to mean the same thing.
For instance, I may use workout, exercise regimen, fitness program, strength training, lifting weights, weightlifting and building muscle all in the same article. Google likes that.
Well, Google also likes to see hyperfocus, hyperfixation, fixation, obsession, infatuation, deep dive and special interest all in the same article.
I’ve created a great term, though, that means autistic special interest: autistic-grade.
Not surprisingly, I also use NT-grade or neurotypical-grade.
However, I’m not sure that Google understands that these mean the same as the others – at least not yet.
I’ve also composed content such as, “It was once an autistic-grade interest, but has been downgraded to NT-level.”
We Know what Special Interest Means
This term instantly has a different meaning than, “What are your hobbies?” when meeting new autistic people.
If an autistic person asks me, “What do you like to do in your spare time?” or, “What are some of your interests?” I’ll take it to mean NT-grade passions. And I’ll answer as such.
But if they ask, “What are your special interests?” I’ll know exactly what they mean and will answer accordingly.
Autistic people are perfectly capable of having NT-grade interests.
For instance, I love watching true crime and have been doing so for many years.
I can discuss this for hours, and can easily name a ton of mistakes that murderers make when committing their crime that ultimately leads detectives to arresting them.
I can describe in detail what never to do if you want to get away with murder.
I can compose a generous list of all the insanely stupid things that people do that get them murdered.
One that stands out: continuing to live under the same roof as the person whom you think is trying to poison you.
You wouldn’t continue living in a house that had a loose python in it, would you? No way. You’d pack a few suitcases and get the hell out of there.
So why stay with someone whom you’re convinced is trying to kill you with poison?
The way I’m going off on all of this makes it seem like an autistic-grade (special) interest.
But actually, it’s not. It’s just a strong interest, like any neurotypical might have.
However, I have had, and currently have, true, genuine special interests: SPINs.
- Roller window shades
- Car trunks that curve up
- Shark attacks
- Immediate seizures from head trauma
- 2010 fatal luge training run of Nodar Kumaritashvili
- Wood chipper deaths
- Big ponytails
- Spellings of female names
- Racial mixes
- Tallness in women
- Proper treadmill use
- Eye contact in autism
This list is very far from complete.
Look. We have to call it something. If not a special interest, then what?
Though Autistics, as mentioned, can have passions that are NT-grade, this doesn’t mean that the special interest in autism is no different than the passionate hobby in the neurotypical.
There is still a huge difference between an autistic special interest and a neurotypical hobby.
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.