One of the most well-known things about people with autism is that in general they have what is referred to as a special interest. This means a large interest, and often vast knowledge, about a certain subject. These interests could be virtually anything. The idea of having a special interest seems to have a lot of negativity attached to it. People think that it is an obsession or that it is unhealthy, whereas if somebody without autism has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the same subject they are just considered to be very knowledgeable and no more is said about it. I suppose my own special interests would be films and books, although in the past I have been just as in-to dinosaurs and dragons. A lot of people are interested in books and films; some of them have much bigger collections than me; houses full of books and five or six thousand films, and they have an encyclopaedic knowledge about literature or cinema. So that on its own is a special interest – they are not by any means restricted to people with autism.
Now their interest in books and films is just as strong as mine, and yet they don’t have autism. So why are special interests so associated with people on the autistic spectrum? A large part of this isn’t actually the interest itself, but rather how some people with autism can sometimes express that interest; the majority of people without autism – and a lot of people with autism – will know that not everybody wants to sit there and hear them talk about star wars for two hours, or deliver a lecture on the processing speed of their computer, but some autistic individuals will talks endlessly, and seemingly unstoppably, about their particular area of expertise. I have encountered this myself several times. They have absolutely zero interest in engaging you in a conversation, they simply want to talk and have somebody listen to them. Any cues that you are not particularly interested in what they are saying go completely unnoticed. And this is really where the negativity comes from. Now of course this isn’t a particularly good thing, but there are ways of working with people to help them to cope better in social situations. Because whether somebody has autism or not, learning if somebody is interested in what you are saying is a life skill that is well worth having, even if it is difficult.
But there is a lot of positivity that comes from special interests as well; the most obvious one is that you have a subject that you are passionate about. You can immerse yourself in it, learn more about it and gain knowledge and experience based around it. Sometimes, like in my case, you can use your special interest to your advantage – I have now written and published two books of my own and am doing film studies in university. So overall I believe that having a special interest or a passion is an extremely good and positive thing in people’s lives, but if you let it affect how you interact with people socially in a negative way, then it might be time to re-evaluate how much time you are spending on that particular area of your life.
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