Having Special Interests/SpIns is essential for Autistic/ND self-preservation
TWs/CWs: Suicide mention, Bullying/Harassment mention, brief Abuse mention, Burnout mention, Ableism mention, etc.
(please read with caution and consideration of your mental health)
Heyo folks! I’m back again with another great article. I’m sorry that I haven’t been feeling as motivated to write more than I have been doing for this year (since I’m taking some time to recover from the previous semester and some rest before my next semester starts back up), and thank you for being patient.
This is my New Year’s gift if you’re looking for something chill, but more relatable to read over the holidays.
Introduction to Special Interests (SpIns)
Before I begin discussing why Special Interests, or SpIns, are vital for Neurodivergent and Autistic survival, I must need to begin summarising what they are. Then, I will also discuss the difference between NT special interests and Autistic/ND special interests, how they’re crucial in aiding with recovery from masking, and also how they are a strength that allows ND and Autistic people to develop their self-identities and a sense of self-charisma/confidence.
To start off, I’ll summarise what SpIns are. SpIns, otherwise referred to as Special Interests, are interests that focus more on topics that neurotypical people don’t perceive as their subjective worldview of what ‘common’ or ‘normal’ is to them (since there was never a thing as ‘normal’ in the first place and it’s an arbitrary concept neurotypical people place too much importance on anyway). SpIns can also include the origins or the history of any specific interest(s) someone is into, how they aid people in life, and/or what someone is famous for doing that no one knows about.
There isn’t a single objective definition for what SpIns are (Eva, 2021), because they are the subjective interpretations of a concept in relation to the topic of obsessions. In terms of SpIns being seen as ‘obsessions’ in this context, they’re a kind of hyperfixation that involves intense focus on specific topics holding a person’s interest in not only a mental way, but also in a psychological and emotional way as well.
SpIns are intensive interests that have passion, vitality, and safety that helps both ND and Autistic persons make sense of the neurotypically-dominated world we live in (whether we like to admit it or not). They’re also a very crucial thing for any ND and Autistic person to have because they help people get through life, expanding their own perspectives of this world, and also aids with self-soothing. SpIns can also comfort and nourish us after a long day masking as an imposed persona we’re not, because society continues to expect us to be people we weren’t at birth, along with being treated like extensions, puppets, and as dolls without self-autonomy by the family members, peers, and people around us. Having SpIns not only benefit us, but also help our mental health and individual senses of self as an act of radical resistance. They are great to draw back on as life experiences for anything we want to share and talk about with our favourite persons, not just for volunteering or employment opportunities since reducing SpIns as only for volunteering or employment opportunities is just a dishonest thing to do (yes I am also calling myself out as well while writing this).
There are some differences between NT SpIns and Autistic/ND SpIns, to continue discussing why ND/Autistic SpIns are more misunderstood by NT people due to the ways in which we interact with our SpIns can seem to be ‘weird’ or as ‘different’ by NTs.
For NT persons, they have special interests that may sometimes be hobbies such as coding/programming, sewing/knitting, making cosplay, reading, doing art projects, engineering, writing, editing, building figurines or sets (applying to Lego™ sets as well), cooking, baking, doing some organising, and more hobbies as well.
As for Autistic/ND persons, we have SpIns that are less social-oriented (Danielle, 2021) and are less relevant to topics seen as ‘common’ by NTs. Unlike NT special interests, Autistic and ND folks are going to have an intense engagement on specific topics extending beyond the range of what can be useful or helpful. We’re more interested in learning everything there is about topics of interest that vary from person to person.
Let’s say that you’re interested in the topic of Punk or Goth as both a subculture and genre. You not only love the genre for the music, variety of bands, fashion, and its culture as a community, because you also are more interested in learning more about its origins/history, who is specifically famous or infamous for their actions (i.e., writing a song about injustices, intersectional issues people continue to face, how certain makeup/clothing makes someone feel, and the list can go on), including messages behind song lyrics (which is up to a person’s interpretation that makes sense to them) people can relate to and apply in situations from real life. On the neurotypical side, a fan would only be interested in listening to the music in the genre, since some fans (not all) would believe that listening to the music and/or partaking in the fashion on their own accord is more important to them. However, there needs to be some clarification in this statement here. Not every neurotypical fan is like this in real life, since their interest in genre subcultures (i.e., punk or goth) and the intensity of it vary from person to person, regardless if a fan is NT or ND/Autistic.
How SpIns help Autistic and ND persons as a form of radical self-care and acceptance
Special interests are fulfilling in terms of providing safety and comfort, while also deeply soothing and nourishing in a mentally, psychologically and emotionally beneficial way (Danielle, 2021). SpIns also bring a sense of predictability and familiarity that help replenish spoons and/or batteries, while being a form of self-acceptance and self-care as an act of radical resistance against a society that constantly attempts to erase our existence as Autistic and ND persons. To Autistic/ND persons, SpIns also help us feel safe since they’re also predictable and familiar. They’re safe in the way that the world is a chaotic dystopia for ND and Autistic persons to be able to survive in.
To describe this with an emotional metaphor… the world’s unpredictable and chaotic like a change in schedule most people hate, but with additional feelings of the change being unbearable and agonising like a warzone that drains to the point of having to force oneself in marching onto the fight against fascists, and to carry on in day-to-day life… to the point that it becomes too overwhelming.
Engaging with your SpIns is like taking your daily meds or vitamins (Danielle, 2021), because they provide time to relax inside yourself while already allowing you to hold or to focus as a way of keeping yourself safe and sound, but to also put yourself first before you have enough battery to continue fighting on. They provide the necessary relief and healing that needs to be worked on for it to be effective.
How Autistic and ND SpIns are perceived
When it comes to how NT persons perceive ND and Autistic SpIns, it’s more of a response consisting of ignorance and general narrow-mindedness, which can said in different ways:
“It doesn’t look age appropriate!”
“It isn’t normal nor how boys/girls act!”
“I refuse to understand this intense obsession you need to get over yourself from!”
“Your obsession is concerning/unhealthy!”
Predominantly NT parents, teachers, employers, therapists, even peers perceive ND and Autistic SpIns as something to be more concerned about and to reduce, leading to consequences for many ND and Autistic persons. Attempting to reduce or dismiss the amount of SpIns ND and Autistic persons have wouldn’t only just destroy a person’s own sense of self-esteem, but also would end up making things worse for them mentally, emotionally, and psychologically at their own expense… To comfort and coddle ableists.
There’s something that most NT people keep forgetting about… Autistic and ND persons are human beings just like everyone else, but our differences are needed and valuable in a world that otherwise tries to kills us every damn day. Our SpIns provide us with the spoons, strength, battery and/or fuel to radically resist against this neurotypical society as a nourishing and caring act of survival.
SpIns don’t just enable Autistic and ND people to do this for others, but also for themselves, and also while continuing to strengthen their own sense of self-identity (since, struggling with self-identity is a kind of special hell that’s also a painful one) and to continue building beneficial boundaries that keep them safe. If it weren’t for the strengths of Autistic and ND persons, then the world wouldn’t be a better place for anyone to live in, nor it would be interesting. Instead, the world would’ve been a boring, sad hellhole to be in.
It’s both ironic and ridiculous for NT folks to worry about our SpIns because they refuse to understand them, therefore jumping to their own conclusion that they need to mitigate our SpIns out of pure, wilful ignorance. To clarify about this, when NTs share their SpIns with people, they’re not being shit on for it, nor are being treated like shit about it because their SpIns aren’t perceived as ‘unhealthy’, ‘weird’, and so forth. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to get shit on for them, because of course they’re also going to get shit on for having SpIns that are outside the norms of what’s considered to be ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’. SpIns are also a central aspect of Autistic and ND folks as our own persons in a multitude of ways than societal… and then judgmental motherfuckers have the audacity to wonder why a person’s sense of self is fucked over by their judgmental attitudes…
How has having SpIns helped both Autistic and ND persons in terms of mental health and their own sense of self-confidence?
Letting both ND and Autistic persons explore what their SpIns are through engagement isn’t only just safe, but it benefits us in the long run (SpIns individually vary from person to person and no SpIn(s) are the exact same, because then that’d be boring and every single person would be the same, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make in this section). They can also be liberating, protective (in the sense that they keep us afloat and anchored to our own realities), and freeing us to be our true selves.
Engaging with our SpIns not only feel safe for us, but they assist us with personal maintenance (or self-care) of our well-being because both ND and Autistic persons are more than likely to be at risk of higher levels of mental illness and increased rates of anxiety and depression than our NT counterparts.
There have also been analysis based studies that are supported with empirical evidence on how having them manages anxiety and mental illness (Eva, 2021), and how they also do more than just provide us aid with managing mental health and cultivating our own senses of individual well-being. Yes, SpIns provide paths for increasing a person’s sense of their own mental health and well-being through social participation and for future employment opportunities, but SpIns do more than just that. They also assist with helping someone build their own career (i.e., writing [which helps with not only writing your thoughts down, but it may also feel like you’re in a therapeutic writing session with yourself], knitting [being in your own knitting circle, but only with you and yourself doing the knitting]), life experiences, including their own knowledge of the world around them.
SpIns have been described as paths for increasing experiences, while also for a person to gain new life lessons from them. They also aid them in building career paths and/or paths to employment opportunities that are available to them. This is also evident from evidence-backed studies (Eva, 2021) because building and developing theoretical and experiential knowledge around SpIns is beneficial to both ND and Autistic persons for life.
Here’s another thing to take into consideration… People who’ve not only identified their SpIns had good implications for their workplaces, home environments, and future opportunities for their futures outside of academia and inside of academia, not just in employment. Again, both ND and Autistic persons express that their SpIns are merely a kind of transient curiosity (Eva, 2021), but something that’s a vital part of who they are as people. Identities that are formed from or around SpIns are what provide ND and Autistic people self-confidence. Think about something that helps you belong in a group, whether it’s gaming, Gacha Life (an app that allows a person to create their own stories/scenarios while making videos out of them, and yes there are both good and bad sides of it like every other fandom), knitting, K-Pop, anime, bands, and the list goes on.
The strengths of ND and Autistic persons lie in their SpIns, which aid the development of strengths: reliability, attention to detail, individual senses of analysis, honesty and directness, resilience (and more), including sincerity. Without SpIns, there wouldn’t be any strengths coming from us, nor would we have self-confidence or self-acceptance because we would not only be truly miserable, we wouldn’t be the people we are today without them. There have been ND and Autistic youth (Eva, 2021) who express that their SpIns aren’t just a kind of transient curiosity, but also something that defines them as people, since forming one’s own identity around SpIns is something that increases self-confidence and self-acceptance in us.
Imagine that you’re Autistic and/or ND in a social setting. It can be at any place, in any social gathering (i.e., think of cosy cafes to a friend’s house). Your SpIns are something that aids you in personal growth (no, not the mainstream bullshit that’s the self-help industry) and also increases your sense of belonging in a social group you’re a part of. So, when you’ve got a shared interest with someone (let’s say a friend or relative you trust, or a peer), you’re provided with a sense of belonging that wasn’t there before. This sense of belonging not only is a feeling that plenty of Autistic and ND persons struggle with, but something constant for us because of how neurotypical-centric society is.
How Masking also affects how Autistic and/or ND persons engage in their SpIns
However, there are also Autistic self-advocates and advocates for Autistic and ND communities that ask to think about better ways in preventing the detrimental effects of masking.
For example, one better way of making the world a better place for ND and Autistic persons is reducing the need or ingrained expectation to mask as neurotypical. Another strategy to also think about is to continue advocating for the rights of Autistic and ND persons to exist safely without fear of violence and hate crimes towards us because of our natural neurotypes, since we’re both hate crimed in social, societal, and intersectional ways.
Here’s one example. A Black ND/Autistic person would try to not have a meltdown in front of a police officer because then the police officer would perceive them as ‘noncompliant’ (BIPOC folks, please correct me if I get some things wrong so that I can do better for both myself and other people around me, and please feel free to add on your perspectives of being Autistic/ND in a white, neurotypical-centric world in the comments [if you feel comfortable doing so]). In reality, said person is genuinely terrified that they wouldn’t be just perceived as ‘noncompliant’, but would also experience instances of racism (i.e., carding, racial profiling, brutality, etc.) and ableism from the officer as well.
If an Autistic/ND person is also LGBTQ+/Queer as well, not only would they be made as invisible (due to a double stigma against Autistic and ND LGBTQ+ persons and more factors intersecting with this stigma), but they’d continuously experience invalidation of their intersecting identities, gaslighting and emotional abuse from unsupportive families (and from families who claim to support them, but are genuinely performative in both actions and words), gatekeeping from medical professionals aiming to invalidate LGBTQ+ Autistic and ND persons based on sexuality/gender identity, and a lack of genuine support as well in financial, legal, medical, societal, social and interpersonal ways (fellow LGBTQ+ folks, please let me know if I’ve gotten something wrong and if I am missing some things so that I can learn for next time, and if you feel comfortable, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section as well).
It’s essentially a complex form of survival (Stanborough, 2021) for many ND and Autistic persons. It can not only be an agonising thing for anyone, because it can also be a painful experience that is a daily reality for many Autistic and/or ND persons… Something that (not all, no) most NT people may not ever fully understand. They may not ever fully understand because they’re fortunate enough to have a society that supports them for who they are, without having to live life as someone they aren’t.
There’s a double-edged aspect to it that can be nuanced to some extent, since masking may sometimes protect someone from being harassed/abused or outed outside of their safe spaces. It’s not always intentional, but it can lead to confusion and a struggle with self-identity (i.e., feelings of self-doubt, self-hatred, worrying, etc…). It can also lead to detrimental consequences (Stanborough, 2021), so it’s important to understand masking and its detriments on people who regularly mask their identities. It’s common in places where ND/Autistic persons aren’t supported nor seen for who they are. There’s also the potential of us being mocked, harassed, abused, bullied, and/or being outcasted, isolated and humiliated by NTs who mock us for our SpIns and for being ourselves (think of cringe compilations made by conservative bastards, but worse)…
There’s consequences to masking that happen (as listed here):
- stress and anxiety (higher in ND and Autistic persons who mask a lot)
- depression (people who mask themselves have reported symptoms of depression and a lack of acceptance from people in their personal lives)
- exhaustion (masking can deplete large amounts of storage from a person’s spoons [for chronically ill persons], battery, energy, and/or fuel)
- delaying identifications for autism (some folks are very good at masking their autism/autistic neurotypes and aren’t identified until they’re older; this can lead to mental health concerns because people are unable to receive the adequate support/understanding they need)
- loss of identity (some folks end up masking themselves, their interests or their SpIns and traits end up feeling like they’re no longer themselves, but non-existent people expected of society to be as; some people express that masking feels like self-betrayal, while others share that masking makes them feel like they’re lying to people)
- risk of burnout (when people continue to push themselves to behave in ways that no longer feel like their true selves, the consequence is an overwhelming feeling of being overloaded; it requires periods of silent withdrawal/isolation and recovery)
- an increased risk of suicidal ideation for some ND and Autistic persons (masking may sometimes lead to feeling like you’re a burden to others, therefore leading to more thoughts of suicide over time)
ND/Autistic SpIns are vital for the well-being and survival of Autistic and ND persons because they keep us going, are there for us when no one wants to try to go out of their way to accept and/or understand us as people,and most of all… They allow us to build our own senses of self-confidence, self-acceptance, our own understanding of ourselves, and our strengths while being sources of care, support, love, and of safety in a world increasingly becoming more dangerous and violent as we move forward into the near future.
So to neurotypical people who are far from being decent people… I ask you this:
Would you like it if you had your hobbies taken away from you just because society no longer deems them as ‘normal’? Would you also like it if you were forced to pretend to be someone else that you’re not/ Are you more than capable of dealing with feelings of self-betrayal, self-doubt, burnout, and feelings of wanting to end yourself as well?
If you said none of those, congrats, you’re on your way to becoming a decent human being! If you said yes to those, you’re going to need to reconsider your own decision and you’re going to need to do deep self-reflection on what having human decency means and what actually being a human means to you.
Author’s note: Yes, I know that this is a late new year’s gift to y’all, but here I am with something new! Oh yeah… I hope that this year is loads kinder to you, treating you better, and a lot more gentler than last year was. Here’s to 2023, yeah?
Danielle. (2021, October 11). Autistic special interest: Secret strength? (special interests in ASD). Neurodiverging: From My Neurodiversity Family to Yours. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://neurodiverging.com/episode-106-special-interest-definition-autism/
Eva, S. (2021, June 25). Engagement in Special Interests Influences Well-Being and Provides Employment Opportunities in Neurodiverse Individuals. Autism Spectrum News. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://autismspectrumnews.org/engagement-in-special-interests-influences-well-being-and-provides-employment-opportunities-in-neurodiverse-individuals/
Stanborough, R. J. (2021, November 19). Understanding Autism Masking and its Consequences. Healthline. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/autism/autism-masking#autism