Is a special interest in autism as much of a hyperfixation if it lasts only a week vs. many years?

Just how short-lived can an autistic obsession ever be?

The duration of a special interest in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder can vary widely.

While some special interests can be intense and long-lasting, others may be shorter-lived.

The duration of a special interest can depend on various factors, including the individual’s level of fascination with the topic, external influences, personal experiences, developmental stage and – very importantly – how much access the person has to their new topic of intrigue.

And, how much access includes the amount of information on the topic!

For example, I took to town a freak crane daredevil incident that killed a young man.

He rigged a climbing rope to the top of a crane that was about 10 stories high, at 3:00 in the morning, then jumped off like a bungee jumper – with the goal of swinging like a pendulum.

He had miscalculated the length of rope and ended up smashing into a brick wall: a fatal error.

The only information I could find on this kind of stunt was THIS actual stunt, and the news information was limited.

But I became quite transfixed by it, devoting a lot of cognitive imagination time to placing myself in that harness!

Needless to say, this special interest was brief because this is not a topic that can be read up on, beyond what was in the online news article.

How long can a special interest in ASD last?

The intensity of the interest may play a significant role.

Some on the Spectrum may become deeply absorbed in a particular subject, spending hours each day researching, talking about or engaging in activities related to it.

For these individuals, special interests may last for months or even years, especially if the topic continues to provide novelty, challenge or enjoyment.

However, not all of these hyperfixations are as enduring.

Some individuals with ASD may develop fleeting interests that capture their attention intensely for a short period before waning.

These interests may arise spontaneously, triggered by a new experience, exposure to novel information or social influences.

While they may be intense during their peak, they may lose their allure relatively quickly as the individual’s focus shifts to other topics or activities, or, there’s a limited amount of information on the subject matter.

A perfect example of this latter point was a fixation I had, about a fatal luge crash, that lasted around three weeks, because no new information was available – nor would ever become available.

In 2010 during a training run for the Winter Olympics, Nodar Kumaritashvili miscalculated a turn on the track, his luge flipping over, catapulting him out and over the sidewall of the track, his head striking a steel support pole at 89.2 mph.

Only so much information about this catastrophe was generated, thus fizzling out my fixation soon after.

Had my fascination been more intense, I suppose I would’ve read up on other luge accidents, how luges are built and even the history of luges.

But this very circumscribed interest had been limited only to Nodar’s fate.

External influences also play a role in shaping the duration of special interests.

For instance, if a particular interest aligns with the individual’s academic or vocational pursuits, they may be more likely to sustain their focus on it over an extended period.

Similarly, social interactions and opportunities for shared engagement with others who share the same interest can contribute to its longevity.

©Lorra Garrick

Personal experiences and developmental stage also influence the duration of special interests in  Autism Spectrum.

As people grow and mature, their interests may evolve in response to changes in their environment, social networks and cognitive abilities.

What captivates them at one stage of life may no longer hold the same fascination in the future.

Moreover, Autistics may develop a series of special interests over time, each with its own duration and intensity.

These interests may overlap or succeed one another, reflecting the dynamic nature of the Autist’s cognitive and emotional development.

When I was growing up, at least if my memory serves me correctly, my special interests (what a sister and I had referred to as “phases”) never ran concurrently.

One would be fizzled out before another spontaneously took over.

Accessibility to the Special Interest

©Lorra Garrick

This variable is huge. And it was even bigger before the Internet.

There was no Internet and no cable TV when I was growing up. Thus, my obsession with the movie “Jaws” and sharks had limits on its cultivation.

We had no “Shark Week,” no Amazon to order any one of hundreds of shark themed products, no YouTubes of sharks, no shark websites, no shark enthusiast online communities, no news outlets covering every single shark attack year after year.

I simply cannot imagine how much time each day I would’ve spent indulging in my shark special interest had all of these venues been available back then!

An autistic person may also see a premature downgrade in their interest if they don’t have the means to access it, such as lack of money or lack of transportation.

If the Autistic is a child, the limiting factor can easily be their parents.

Parents who have no idea that their child is autistic may start getting sick of hearing about the new topic of interest (like my mother and another sister did with the sharks).

Some autistic children and teens may secretly indulge in their special interest to avoid being shamed or ridiculed for it.

In today’s world, this secrecy would be very easy to pull off, as the young Autistic could easily access information about their obsession via their phone, under the covers, after everyone’s gone to bed.

In my day, the only way to access information was to check books out of a library or buy tabloid magazines devoted to alleged shark attacks.

Kids also don’t have money or transportation to feed their infatuation.

There’s also limited room, being that a minor doesn’t have say-so in how much of the house they can fill up with their intense passion, such as a collection of houseplants.

The duration of a special interest in autism can vary widely, ranging from intense and long-lasting to fleeting and transient.

Some of my fleeting or transient hyperfixations had limited information.

Another fine example is my acute fascination with birds fatally crashing into windows – after this happened with my living room window while I was watching TV in my townhome.

Off I went, taking that iconic autistic deep dive – and it wasn’t long before I had read all there was to read about this highly specific subject off the Internet.

It’s not an evolving topic, and there’s very limited information on it.

So after a few weeks, as with many of my “phases” over my lifetime, this special interest had run its magical course; I’d had my fill.

Resurrected Special Interests

One more thing to consider is that a short-lived hyperfixation can be resurrected, depending on its nature.

I’ve never myself experienced a resurrected infatuation, but I suppose it’s possible.

For instance, what if there’s another fatal Olympic luge run?

What if a bird flies smack into my office window right now as I’m typing this?

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: ©Lorra Garrick