Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

Special minds, special interests

Autistic people are often incorrectly thought of as passionless. One might meet an autistic person who seems anxious or reserved and misinterpret her demeanor as a sign that she’s simply not someone who feels very strongly about anything. This could not be further from the truth. Autistic people are still invested in the topics and people around them, just like everybody else. In fact, they might even form affinities and passions that take the form of “special interests.”

What are special interests? They are passions that are pursued past the extent that neurotypical individuals might consider normal. Special interests become defining aspects of autistic people’s lives. We almost always want to talk about them, even with people we’re unfamiliar with or with people who might not have the same level of interest. We might daydream about them throughout the day and think about how much we’d rather be pursuing our interests than doing other tasks. Special interests can come in many forms. They might be actions, such as organizing things in one’s room in a particular way. They might be hobbies, such as playing an instrument or writing stories.

One of my special interests is liturgical singing. I believe that is an outlet through which my spirituality and my autistic identity intersect to create one of my deepest passions. From singing in the pews for the first time as a kindergartener during weekly school Masses to becoming part of the Liturgical Choir at Notre Dame, I’ve always been driven to musical worship, so much so that a Mass without opportunities for singing seems like having tortilla chips without salsa. 

I also have a special interest that’s less ontologically crucial to me but still has played a meaningful role in my life: Pokémon. Ever since I played Diamond for the first time as a six-year-old during the Christmas season, I’ve become engrossed in a world filled with bizarre yet fascinating creatures, each with their own moves, abilities, designs, statistics and more. Pokémon stimulated my imagination, but its complicated depth also challenged me in a fun and engaging way, especially when I become more intrigued by the competitive scene as I entered high school. To this day, I still love Pokémon. And even though the company’s newer games have their warts, I still find comfort in enjoying an activity that has brought me joy for so long. 

Sometimes there exists a narrative that special interests, despite their perks, are inherently detrimental because they are ultimately too distracting. However, while autists like me can occasionally get fixated on our interests, this fixation can have its own benefits. Primarily, it can grant us levels of expertise that enable us to create and innovate within our interests. For example, my special interest in liturgical music motivated me to pursue leadership positions in the Liturgical Choir and my special interest in Pokémon enhanced my strategic thinking, which I could apply in my academic pursuits. 

Furthermore, autistic people are fully capable of learning how to engage with their special interests while also being able to pay attention and properly focus on other tasks. Having a small object for swimming purposes can aid with this. Personally, I like to connect my special interest to whatever other task I might be completing. For instance, I might listen to music while writing essays. I might also use special interests as a reward for completing tasks, such as by allowing myself to play the new Pokémon game on my Switch once I finish the assigned reading for my classes.

However, there is another incorrect narrative that exists around special interests. Instead of believing that special interests are damaging, some might believe in a positive stereotype that expects an autistic person to always have a “savant”-like skill linked to their special interest. These people might be surprised when not every autistic person is ready to give you a memorized list of all the U.S. presidents or do differential equations in their head. Thus, I believe it necessary to clarify that not every special interest is linked to “savant” abilities, even if this can sometimes happen. It’s also crucial for us to reframe the discussion around special interests in ways that don’t exclude those without a seemingly miraculous skill. Much like neurotypical people, autistic people can find joy in activities even if they don’t become the best at doing them. 

Special interests are a prominent yet often misunderstood facet of autistic life and culture. So, whenever you speak with people on the spectrum, remember to be patient when they seem fixated on particular topics or passions. Before you dismiss their special interests, remember how much joy autists garner from them. Better yet, if you allow autistic individuals to feel comfortable embracing their special interests, it’ll help them feel safer and more confident overall in expressing themselves, even if they might otherwise be excluded. 

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in global affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersections between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at jgriff22@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.