by Ben Adams
CN: Autism, bullying, stigma
I’m autistic, and like many people with autism, I’ve always been naturally interested in things. Though I shared many of the same hobbies as my classmates at school, I was at times far more interested in reading about minimalist classical music or architecture than I was with socialising or doing schoolwork. Once in a French class, the teacher approached me to ask why I wasn’t doing the work only to find that I was reading the Wikipedia entry for the Chrysler building in New York. I’m thankful to have grown up in a house that encouraged special interests but at school it wasn’t so easy. Being so passionately interested in things marks you out as different, making you a target for bullies or causing you to become socially isolated. These special-interests provide much-needed respite from the world and at the same time can make others in the world treat you differently. The most recent interest of mine has been tea.
“I scarcely feel more alive as when I am indulging special interests”
I’d always hated the winter — the rain, the cold, the near-constant darkness — and one evening in December wondered to myself whether an interest in hot drinks would help make that more bearable. I began reading about tea and two hours later, it occurred to me I had used up pretty much all of my remaining energy for that day reading about different varieties. I could hardly muster the effort required to get ready for bed that night. But I didn’t care. My brain had been filled with excitement and fascination: with the specific details and nuances of how to prepare different kinds of tea, and where the tea comes from, and how it was made. I scarcely feel more alive as when I am indulging special interests. I was sat there, enthused about drinks that I hadn’t even tasted before. Cut to a few months later, and my friend was struck by me saying I was considering getting into tea, to now being able to answer questions about what different kinds of tea would taste like and how they should be prepared.
Not all of my interests or hobbies are so extreme and passionate. It is these specific interests that are commonly referred to as “special interests” with regard to autistic people. I’ve known people become fascinated in all manner of things: it could be the universe in which a film or television programme is set, a particular aspect of the natural world, an author or filmmaker, a historical figure or era in history. But first and foremost it is deep and all-consuming: the kind that leads you to harvest all available information, until there is nothing left to know.
Special interests do have something of a bad reputation. This is in part because they are listed as a symptom of a condition which has historically faced such stigma: in public life, and in the media. They can make autistic people stand out, and make them a target for bullying. This is particularly true for women and non-binary people, for whom intense and focused interests are less taken as a norm. It is also true that unmoderated, special interests can stop autistic people from doing things that they need to do or engaging in things they otherwise might enjoy. I have at times found myself engaged in interests that I could not turn away from, and while I no doubt enjoyed them, I also couldn’t escape the feeling that my time was better spent elsewhere. Articles about the subject online include information (for parents) about what to do when interests cause disruption in day-to-day life. To their credit, the entry on the website of the National Autistic Society also rather helpfully acknowledges not only that this situation can arise, but also that special interests can be channeled into more useful avenues.
“I’m not interested in talking here about how special interests can help autistic people to be more employable or more productive in the workplace”
I’m not interested in talking here about how special interests can help autistic people to be more employable or more productive in the workplace. For many autistic people, and especially until employers and the government acknowledge their moral responsibility to make accommodations, full-time employability is not a possibility. Special interests are also, in many regards, not actually very helpful. As a student, I have at times found myself having to write or study topics that have been special interests of mine in the past. But my extensive knowledge of the work of the composer Steve Reich has yet to be of any practical value.
The point here is that special interests are good because they are good for autistic people, and because they make life in a world that is not made for us that bit more bearable. In the past few months, tea has helped ground me and bring routine to my life. It helps calm me down when stressed, stay motivated when I need to work, cheer me up when I’m upset. The routine is something that I can count on when everything else around me is fluctuating and shifting.
“Special interests attest to the vibrancy and the diversity of the autistic community”
Little else makes me happier than seeing other autistic people passionately discuss their special interests. Our faces light up, we grin, we wave our hand excitedly. Special interests attest to the vibrancy and the diversity of the autistic community and rather than being stigmatised, should be celebrated. So if you know an autistic person, take an interest in them and listen. You might just learn something new.
Header image by IGOR TREPESHCHENOK