Intense special interests are strengths and opportunities for connection.
- "Intense special interests," when "abnormal in intensity and focus," is one of the diagnostic criteria that makes autism a "mental disorder."
- When we view intense special interests as strengths, it offers pathways to well-being, finding meaning and purpose, and relationships.
- Neuroatypical and neurotypical people can have intense special interests.
- We often celebrate traits of authenticity and marching to the beat of one’s drum but question them in people with autism.
Intense special interests are one of the hallmarks of autism. When pathologized as "restricted," "fixated," and "abnormal in intensity and focus," they become diagnostic criteria and indicators of "mental disorder," according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM 5).
happiness and well-being, live, find meaning and purpose, and build relationships and communities–worthy goals for neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike.
Whose intense special interests are abnormal and to be suppressed versus passions to be praised and even celebrated? The psychiatrist who spent years in medical school and training then chaired a committee developing criteria for diagnosing neurodevelopmental disorders (i.e., Susan Swedo)? A psychologist who works with children and families all week and writes blog posts on the weekend (i.e., me)?
What about the person who spends 80 hours a week working and commuting to work to make enough money to buy an expensive home and go on exotic vacations? The parent who leaves their job to spend years, or decades, raising their children? The leading scientist who spent childhood summers crawling around his backyard observing insects (i.e., E. O. Wilson)? The writer of more than fifty hugely popular books for children and adolescents (i.e., Lois Lowrey)? The quarterback who works out, practices, and studies film 12-16 hours per day and leads their team to the Super Bowl and, when his team loses, dedicates himself to playing better the next year (i.e., Jalen Hurts)? The minister who dedicated his life and then gave his life for the cause of civil rights for black Americans or the nun who dedicated her life to serving marginalized people in India (i.e., Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa)?
And do special interests have to be "productive"–build careers, make money, contribute to society, etc.–to be "normal" rather than "abnormal?" How much time do "typical" people spend watching sports? Golfing or surfing, or playing pickleball? Fishing or hunting? Gardening or crafting? Streaming their favorite TV series?
Benefits of De-Pathologizing Intense Special Interests
There are social and psychological costs to pathologizing "intense special interests." Anticipating rejection and shaming is anxiety provoking. "Masking" or hiding important parts of oneself is distracting and exhausting. Thinking of oneself as too different or weird is depressing. A life avoiding what gives one joy or pleasure can be empty. Hiding our talents limits opportunities to do good for others. Hiding who we are makes it harder to connect with others, including finding and connecting with others like us.
Psychologist Devon Price, in his book Unmasking Autism, reports that for children diagnosed with autism, "Having the freedom to develop and express special interests is linked to improved social, emotional, and even fine motor development” and “In studies that examine the lives of Autistic adults, engaging with special interests is positively associated with subjective well-being."
Identifying, accepting, and expressing hidden or "masked" parts of self are key goals of most, if not all, psychotherapy orientations. Being one’s authentic self is key to living a good life, according to the writings of many respected philosophers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self Reliance:
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.”
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.”
Finding One’s Tribe
Engaging online and in person with people passionate about similar things is an opportunity to connect with like-minded people. This is true for neuroatypical and neurotypical people. I am a psychologist–many of my friends are psychologists. People play and watch sports together. Want to meet compatible people? Enroll in a class.
Neuroatypical/neurodiverse people with mutual special interests can find and create spaces with social norms that are more relaxed and forgiving and where they can interact with people with shared interests. Fandoms, conventions, board game and trivia "meet-ups," and more can be opportunities to work through social anxiety and develop social skills and, ultimately, provide a sense of belonging and positive identity, even leading to friendships and relationships. "Pathologizing" the intense special interests of people diagnosed with autism takes these opportunities away.
Some People Hear a Different Drummer
I think Emerson’s (quoted above) friend and follower Henry David Thoreau provides, in his book Walden, a fitting summary for this blog post (please forgive Emerson’s and Thoreau’s gendered language–they lived and wrote in the 1800s):
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however, measured or far away.
Yes, as it has been said in multiple Spiderman movies, “With great power comes great responsibility.” When, where and with whom our intense special interests are expressed does matter. We can, though, look for ways to see intense special interests as strengths and opportunities.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Emerson, R. W. (1993). Self-reliance and other essays. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications
Price, D. (2022). Unmasking autism: Discovering the new faces of neurodiversity. NY: Random House