Passionate Interests

You may have heard of the term ‘special interests’ (however some autistics do not prefer this term), referring to an interest that brings autistic people a lot of joy. Neurotypicals often misinterpret these interests as obsessions, as the amount of repetition and enthusiasm shown for the interest is sometimes larger than what a neurotypical would show. It is important to understand that passionate interests are not negative, and the reason it brings the autistic person so much joy is because this world can be very unaccommodating and scary, whereas a beloved movie, book or hobby can feel like a safe space.

Passionate interests have been known to help an autistic person to grow considerably, for example what started out as a love of books could lead to a book club, new friends and independent outings to bookstores. Having that safety from an interest can help an autistic person feel more comfortable and confident.

The level of enthusiasm shown may be seen as excessive by neurotypicals, however it is in fact perfectly normal. When an autistic person isn’t masking, big emotions such as happiness or joy will come out in big ways, and the autistic person may stim to self-regulate from that big emotion to avoid being overwhelmed. Some autistic people feel too much, and so even positive emotions are amplified and need to be regulated.

A passionate interest can take up a lot of time and space, but it is important that we give autistic people the space to be authentic, even if that means them watching the same movie or playing the same game. The worst thing you could do to an autistic person is to take their source of joy away and expect them to do something else.

Autistic people can use their interests as a source of regulation, such as watching their favourite movie after a hard day or playing a game to feel resourceful and confident. Escapism can help with the demands of reality and take away the pressure for a bit.

Many autistic people have managed to make their interest into a career, such as Temple Grandin and John Robison. By doing this it brings more diversity into the workplace, a different set of skills and a different outlook on a job. What can be just an income source to a neurotypical could mean the world to an autistic person, and they have the enthusiasm to go further with new ideas.

Neurotypical professionals, such as teachers and doctors, have stated autistic children need to be directed away from their interests to make them ‘more sociable’, however I believe this will only make them less confident as you are taking away their source of happiness and instead putting them into an uncomfortable situation. That interest is part of who that child is, and could be who they grow up to be, determining what job they get. To take that away is to hinder their future. The attitude towards passionate interests needs to move away from negative words such as ‘inflexible’ or ‘obsessions’ and focus on the positives, that these interests can build skills and bring happiness.

Later research has outwardly shown how valuable a passionate interest is, not only launching careers but with building self-confidence, helping people cope with emotions, making new friends and having new experiences. By taking away that interest, neurotypicals are preventing what they wanted the autistic person to do in the first place!

Evidence of this can be found from Ron Suskind, who revealed in his 2016 documentary that his son’s passion for Disney movies helped him learn to speak. Whilst the professionals may have wanted his son in speech therapy or other types of therapy, Suskind understood the importance of meeting his child where he is and let him live authentically. If an interest is what motivates a child, then why supress that interest?

By Luce Greenwood, autistic advocate and content writer. @coffeecupsbooks