I don’t know about any of you, but I feel, living in a mostly neurotypical family, society, and planet, that my “special interests,” whether they be a books series, place to travel, hobby, or anything, lead me to be patronized, labeled, belittled, and just plain misjudged. Your parents ask your psychiatrist what kind of medicine he can prescribe to “stop me from thinking about it too much.” Your mother seems to know who you should date, what you should watch, and even what career you ought to do. Everything you say seems to provoke them to push you in some direction you don’t want because really they don’t understand what you really think about certain things, the ways in which you appreciate them, and how they really fit into your life, so I thought, after mulling things over in my head as I do every so often, that I ought to write this post dispelling many (though probably not all) the myths about special interests that autistic people like me have.
1. Autistics have ONE special interest and it stays with them their whole life. Really. I’ve had dozens of these special interests during my childhood-gas/electric lamps, apes, trees-and most of them I’ve never even thought of for the past fifteen years. Some lasted barely a week. When I was a kid, I used to know all the different kinds of leaves in my neighborhood. Not any more.
Furthermore, I have dozens of interests today-photography, drawing, knives, instruments. I rarely spend more than two hours of my spare time involved in any of these one things. Think of it like this: you may like pizza, but does that mean you have it for every meal?
2. Autistic interests are, almost always, “weird.” Here’s what I’ve liked over the course of my life: elementary school I liked Pokemon; middle school I liked Harry Potter; high school I liked The Lord of the Rings. See a pattern? I just needed Game of Thrones and I would have made my point.
Let me talk about college for a second. Here are some of my primary interests: I like gender studies, literary criticism, media theory, art history, social science. How many people interested in gender studies, literary criticism, media theory, or art history can there be at a four year university?
I’d like to make a point that I have sometimes become interested in things my peers never shared my passion for at the time. When I was in elementary school, I had a fascination with apes. However, I, as with all of my peers from school went to our local zoo and paid attention with them, and for me, they just happened to stick with me for a while. I wasn’t interested in a different thing. Just more so than my other peers. Today it seems like every other interest of mine is either a block buster movie or ones of twenty other people surrounding me.
3. Special interests encourage autistics to “withdraw” from social activities. Autistics don’t need special interests to withdraw from social activities. We have plenty of motivations that can make us want to do that already-bullying, discrimination, lack of social skills, needing time alone to process all that’s going on in our heads, trouble with executive functioning. All special interests are is really just a way to pass time while we do this.
4. Autistic people relate better to people with shared interests. I once thought this myself. When I was a junior, I got a lot of flirtatious glances from a girl in an anthropology class, and thought, What the Hell? We have similar interests. She’ll probably understand how I feel. Little did I know she happened to be very needy, immature, and played all sorts of games with me to get me to like her before I stopped trying to get with her. Today, my two best friends at school happen to be interested in these two particular areas: computer science and mathematics. They are probably the best friends I have ever had and we hang out all the time, talking and laughing. While it seemed that girl and I might have shared similar interests, these two guys and I had more similar personalities, approaches, and sense of humor.
5. Special interests make it hard for autistics to interact with other people. Again, if you’ve read any popular literature that’s out there on autism, you’d know that’s already hard for us. We don’t read facial expressions of body language, we speak bluntly and hastily, we have a terrible need for exactness of schedules. But somehow, special interests get the axe because parents and educators think that if we like something, that’s all we’ll ever talk about. Did your special education major friend from college only talk to you about FERPA and IEP?
I myself have plenty of other ways of relating to my peers. We’re both concerned about similar issues-dating, teachers, sex (yes, sex). We eat twenty piece McDonald’s chicken nuggets together. We laugh, we drink, we go to parties. Autistics have other ways of relating to people than on a purely intellectual level. True, some of us, if you look at practically every news channel talk about autism, can go into a monologue like a street preacher. But the truth is, sometimes our special interests are all we ever really know what we're talking about on anything and we don't want to seem stupid.
6. Special interests are practically all autistics ever think about. Actually it’s a little more like this. Imagine you are walking through town, you have a life-long passion for photography, you see the perfect sunset, and you think, That reminds me of my perfect lover back at home. Autistics don’t simply think about these interests in exclusion to other things. They can simply relate them to what else is going on in their lives. It’s like a friend you meet at a bar and think, This guy knows what I’m going through.
7. These special interests will never be a possible career for autistics. Except for porn stars and drug dealers, every profession is important. We can’t live without it. We wouldn’t have food on the table if there weren’t cashiers at the registers or managers to help run customer service. Several autistics, such as Daniel Tammet, John Elder Robison, Temple Grandin, Dawn Prince-Hughes, and Lance Rice, have all made successful careers in areas of their choosing. Yes, autistics like these have had to “overcome the lack of demand” for these professions, just as they have also had to overcome epilepsy, PTSD, depression, unemployment, lack of education, and government housing. Furthermore, statistics indicate that nearly 70% of all Americans will work in at least five different fields over their lifetime. What’s more, dismissing some of the autistic interests-animal physiology, botany, explosives-tends to originate from the whole STEM mentality (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), which I know from being in the state of Kansas. But while these jobs are important, they’re not enough for us to live on our own. We couldn’t know these things without teachers, and we could never sell our products without economists who predict the stock market in this ever-changing economy. Obviously, Temple, Robison, Tammet, and such have a demand for their books because people just keep buying them.