Hello folks! Today’s topic of choice is special interests, namely what they are, what mine are, and how they differ from casual hobbies. Let’s get started!
It’s no secret that my biggest special interest is dinosaurs. I’m an absolute sucker for a hadrosaur. One of the things I’m most looking forward to doing after restrictions are lifted and it is safe, is going to the Natural History Museum in London with one of my friends, both dressed as dinosaurs. I already have the costume and decided to trial run it by taking my dog, Riley, out for an evening walk whilst wearing it. I got a lot of looks but it was absolutely worth it to feel the wind in my head frills. And although dinosaurs are a common interest, for me it surpasses being just a casual hobby and is a special interest.
The difference between the two can be most simply explained by the intensity. I have general interests and hobbies such as martial arts, learning German, crocheting, etc. However, these are something that, while I enjoy doing them, do not take up a particularly large amount of my thinking time. Dinosaurs on the other hand… Ooh man! Not a day goes by that I don’t listen to the bird song outside my window and picture what it would have sounded like when the non-avian dinosaurs roamed the land. As birds are direct descendants of the theropod dinosaurs (the group that includes lots of the large carnivores), I like to think that Tyrannosaurus Rex would have sounded less like the roar heard in many a film, and more like the gentle song of a nightingale.
One of the ways that I like to describe the difference is my reaction to watching the Jurassic Park / Jurassic World films. Every single time I watch them, I end up crying. Once when re-watching The Lost World: Jurassic Park, I was crying so hard that I ended up calling my friend because I was so upset about how mean the bad guys were being to the dinosaurs. I remember when I watched Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at the cinema, I cried so hard at the scene when the dinosaurs are left to die on the island that I had a headache from dehydration. I have now decided to ban myself from watching any of those films because the ending is always too sad for me and people are so horrible. Ideally the film would end with the dinosaurs wiping out people and living life peacefully, but alas, the film industry is committed to making humans triumph.
Special interests can also change throughout a person’s life. I used to be completely obsessed with marine animals; especially dolphins and sharks. I got the Blue Planet box set for Christmas one year and I watched it on repeat. I owned a detailed book about how to qualify as a certified scuba diver so that I would be able to go and swim with them. I wanted to be a scuba diver so badly that I researched into different career options, and decided that I would work for an oil company so that I could protect the marine life from any oil spills. If I was working there, I felt sure I would be able to prevent any huge disasters. This reached its peak in Year 6 of Primary School —when I was about 10— and I was happily explaining my plan to the classroom TA when she said “oh you don’t want to do that, you won’t make much money”.
Just like that, I was crushed. I didn’t particularly care about how much money I could make: I figured I wouldn’t even have time to spend it because I’d be with the dolphins all the time. But I felt embarrassed and stupid for daring to think that I could be a scuba diver professionally. From then on I didn’t bring up scuba diving much, nor did I tell people my cool dolphin facts. I stopped reading my scuba diving book before bed and I’ve now lost lots of the knowledge I used to have about marine life.
I am perfectly aware that the TA would be horrified if she knew what a pivotal moment in my life that was. For her it was an offhand comment, but for me it started a shame spiral that ultimately culminated in the loss of a special interest. I still like dolphins, sharks, and scuba diving, but the intensity and passion is mostly gone. I put the scuba diving book back on my shelf and it sat untouched for years, until it eventually got thrown in the discard pile and donated to a charity shop.
That was the only special interest that I felt I truly ‘lost’, but there have been other, less intense interests, such as different types of rock, Lego, manatees, etc. New ones may still form as well. For example, I am still unsure as to whether my intense interest in methods of folding clothes and organising the home is a special interest or merely a hobby. I mean sure, I will spend most of my leisure time browsing Pinterest for new methods of organising drawers, and sure, my flatmate gets an update every time I decide to try out a new way of folding my socks, but I don’t know if it’s a fully fledged special interest. Either way, it means my room is meticulously organised and I get considerable joy from going to IKEA.
One of the things I love the most about talking to fellow autistic people is hearing about the niche special interests. I’ve had conversations about chickens, linguistics and grammar, Taylor Swift, tea, and more. Watching someone talk about a topic that they know so much about is a brilliant feeling because their excitement is more infectious than even the new Covid variants. The person starts grinning and talking incredibly quickly, and I start grinning because I can see how happy they are. And possibly the best part about having friends with such specific and varied interests is the fact that you now have on-hand experts on topics you may have never even thought about. I now know a surprising amount about green tea, despite the fact I never drink it. And if you’re ever fortunate enough to meet someone with the same special interest, you may as well cancel your plans for the day, because you will now rapid-fire exchange facts for as long as you can go without needing to eat / drink / sleep.
An autistic person sharing information about their special interest is also a huge compliment. Many of us have been shut down when talking about them, or told that we get “too excited” or “annoying”. I know that lots of my friends are not particularly interested in hearing about dinosaurs, but they humour me and let me talk about it because it makes me happy, and that is one of the nicest things anyone could do for me. I am more than happy for the other person to just sit there and zone out as I ramble on about the origins of the word “thagomizer”, and how to instantly tell if a drawing of a Parasaurolophus is worth its salt.
I love learning, and so hearing about it from someone so enthusiastic is brilliant. We’ve all had those teachers in school who’s subject is rather dull, but who’s manner makes us want to engage. This is how it feels for me when I listen to autistic people talking. It is such a pure form of joy that I can’t help but enjoy it, even if the subject matter is entirely uninteresting to me. And it also works in reverse. If you can get an autistic person to talk about their special interest when they are upset or anxious, I find that it helps calm them down and soothe them. It certainly does for me. And this isn’t necessarily limited to just autistic people either. I have a couple of neurodiverse friends (who aren’t autistic) and this works well with them as well. I admit, rather shamelessly might I add, that it’s my go to technique for helping them if they ever seem stressed or just a bit down. It isn’t that I don’t care about the subject, it’s just that I only care about the subject in relation to them. For example, one of my friends is very into a particular author and while I am not a huge fan of his works, I like hearing her talk about him because I like seeing her all happy and excited. I would read his books and interact with his works because it reminds me of her, not because I am invested in his writing.
One of my other non-autistic but still neurodiverse friends and I have spoken about this before. He couldn’t understand why I liked to hear him talk about his interests when it’s not at all an interest of mine. He asked if I was humouring him and was worried I would get bored or laugh at him. I tried to explain to the best of my ability that I was not humouring him, I would not get bored, and I would never dream of laughing at him. While I do not understand the appeal of his interest at all, I like hearing him tell me about it because I can see how happy it makes him, and that in turn makes me happy. In addition, I know that he has had some negative reactions to his interest, and so I feel honoured when he chooses to share with me, as I know the level of trust that takes.
Special interests provide a refuge for those on the spectrum, as they are a tremendous source of knowledge and comfort, all rolled up into one, neat topic. My special interests are important to me, not because they have anything to do with what I want to go on to do in life, but because they are a steady companion that bring me joy largely unmatched by other aspects of the world. They don’t involve other people, the internet means I can devote time to researching them whenever I want, and let’s be real… dinosaurs are Just So Cool! So whenever an autistic person next wants to tell you about their special interest then maybe have a listen: you might learn some really cool facts that will come up at a pub quiz later! And autistic people, talk about your special interests with reckless abandon! I want to hear all the random facts about the most specialised topics imaginable. Being an expert in a topic without attending years of education is one of the coolest things I can think of. So be proud and keep learning. We’re all very cool.