Understanding Autism: On Obsessions and Special Interests

Hello all. Today I’m talking about Special Interests

To those of you who don’t know the term; A Special Interest basically refers to something someone with autism is VERY interested in. They have an intense focus on and take comfort in whatever it is. We often become experts on our special interests. Or just enjoy them to our little autistic heart’s content.

In this post I will be going over my thoughts on special interests, talking about my own and why I believe I had them in particular, and giving an analogy to hopefully understand these things better. 

I did not know the expression ‘Special Interests’ as a kid and even a teen, instead referring to such things as my ‘Obsessions’. However, as I grew I learned the term and some of these obsessions became not as strong as earlier ones where… 

As a result, I now use both terms. Obsessions are things I was TOTALLY intensely focused on, They were basically my focus in life. These things helped me face the world at a certain time and be able to do more in it. They were a tool to understand and participate in the scary world outside. Something steady I could count on. 

Special interests, on the other hand, are things I am focused on and very interested in that are not really consuming my life. (At least not like Obsessions did.) These are things that were/are not on the level of Obsessions. I think it is notable I had more of these after I stopped having to deal with quite as much of the outside world in life.

I don’t feel like we chose our Special Interests or Obsessions. Also, they don’t have to last forever. They can change for some Autistic people and never change for others. Mine have almost always been stories. The exceptions being eras of history, which I suppose are like a story in and of themselves.

Before I go into my personal history I want to make an analogy that I hope will help people understand what these things can be like to us.

Imagine falling from a cliff endlessly. Not knowing when you will hit the bottom (or if you will, or when, or even what is down there.) but being perpetually in that state. Unpredictable and scary… This is Akin to the world  for an autistic person in this analogy. 

 A special interest is a thin ledge outcropping. Something that breaks your fall but still lets you see the sheer cliff face. The world is still dangerous. The cliff is still there, but at least you have something to cling to that breaks your fall.

This is why we get so upset if we see someone attacking a special interest or obsession THAT IS OUR LIFELINE its what is keeping us from the fall. OF COURSE, we get upset. (That said, attacking can take many different forms and we can have levels of upsetness. We might even be fine talking about its flaws if that won’t make the edge crumble or knock us off it. However we might also be upset at any small attack, desperately grabbing onto our safety net.)

Obsessions are more than an outcropping. Obsessions are a little box made of strong stone built around us against the cliff. They can block the cliff from view, Or if semi-transparent they can be a lens to see and understand though. But most of all they can make us feel somewhat safe. We’re still on a cliff face, the world is still scary… But it is much easier to face in our little box of safety called an Obsession.

On the Semi transparent thing. Special Interests/Obsessions can be something safe to filter the world though. The world is confusing and unpredictable… The Obsession is not. View the world using the obsession and it makes the world less confusing, scary, and unpredictable.

Another note. It was not until recently with a lot of self-analyzing that I realized just how scary the world was to me and realized what special interests do and how it relates to that. I’ve spent YEARS getting more in touch with aspects of my subconscious emotional mind. Likely because understanding myself and others is a special interest for me in and of itself. Realizing I was terrified of the world came pretty late in that process for me. 

Okay now onto my personal history. 

I am told that my first obsession was Barney. I don’t remember this but I have been told about it… and the time I grew hysterical when my friend had a barney pinata and my parents had to literally get it and tape it back together to calm me down.

The first special interest I can remember was in ancient cultures and Greek myths, As I grew, Tamora Pierce’s books, and the Medieval world as well. 

The first Obsession I remember was Harry Potter. I clearly remember being obsessed with it in 4th grade but it likely started a bit earlier. I don’t remember many details but, all my birthday parties were Harry Potter-themed. I memorized so many things about it, won any trivia contest, and let myself fall into that world. I think I fell for Harry Potter because, though I enjoyed my Montessori schooling and had some friends, I was lonely and a bit left out. Since almost all my friends, and at some times indeed all my friends. were boys and me a girl, I was still viewed as an outsider. Boys did not like inviting girls over to their houses for the most part. Or the few girls I made friends with I had to compete for the attention of. The friends in Harry Potter did not have that issue.  Hermione was nearly just as much a friend to Harry as Ron. Also, it was a world where my learning disabilities and certain other things would not be an issue. A world of magic and fantasy that I could escape to. 

Starting in 5th grade and I believe ending before 7th was an obsession with the Lord of the Rings movies. I had a crush on Frodo and loved the bromance between him and Sam. I even made Neopets with their names and made a fanfiction that took place in an alternate more modern reality. I am unsure what drew me to this. Perhaps the struggle against evil. Especially an evil that was right there trying to affect your mind. (Cough, cough)

Around this time my lifelong Special Interest with The Elder Scrolls started but that will be discussed later and in later posts more extensively. My first attempt at 7th grade did not go the best. So we homeschooled me for the rest of that year and another year before going back to public schooling half-time for 7th (Again) Then full-time for 8th (Will cover this later in more depth.) During this time either the homeschooled year or the partly homeschooled year, I was introduced to Naruto by a friend and became obsessed with it. 

This is easier to figure out. Why? Well, the main protagonist struggles against overwhelming odds and does his best, never giving up even though the world around him is very hard. With a girl who was starting to realize how different and difficult the world would be for her (And that her dreams might be nearly impossible) as she got older and older it was a good thing to have.

In 9th grade, A friend (A girl this time! I had two female best friends that were healthy for me!) I tried to talk about Naruto to told me that an anime called Fullmetal Alchemist was better. I remember she tried to say it had a lot of hot guys. This did not help with a gal who was borderline asexual, but in time I watched the show and BAM obsession for several years.

 Fullmetal Alchemist (the 2003 anime version) was there to comfort me around the time when I started to realize that I would have to give up my dreams of becoming a historian and writer of my many book ideas, due to my own mind.  When I realized I would never be the grown-up independent woman I had thought of as a kid. With a plot saying Yes shit can happen to you, Just keep moving forward. Sometimes you lose things that don’t seem fair, ETC. This story became my strength and my shield as the world got harder and harder for me. 

Then the 2009 anime came out. Everyone in the Fullmetal community’s focus on that caused me great pain. Pain so bad it was disproportionate to what it should be. I HATED the 09 anime. I LOATHED IT for the pain it caused me and its perceived attack on my beloved 2003 version and its message. I finally broke down and confessed to my parents how much their being sick so much affected me. But I stayed with Fullmetal Alchemist for many more years. It became perhaps my biggest obsession. 

But eventually, I had to move on. I was obsessed with Supernatural for a short time… Why? Well, everything seemed against the Winchester brothers and constantly hit them again and again… 

Then had what could be a partial obsession or a very strong special interest in Dragon age starting in I believe 2013 and ending in 2016 when life intervened with a mental health crisis.

That was the last thing I think could truly be called an obsession. My special interests continued Especially my VERY long-term ones with The Elder Scrolls and Tudor England.

And that, friends, is my history. It was not until recently I was able to observe the pattern of obsessions and how it matched my life. My delving into Autism finally reached a point where I started writing this and realized the later ones matched my life and decided to look to see if earlier ones did too. 

All and all you need to realize that Special Interests are more than just a disproportionate fascination with a particular subject. More than being ‘Weird’ as some, unfortunately, call it in a derogatory way. They are a safety line in a world that is confusing. A solace in many, many ways. 

If you are a parent of an autistic person try to take an interest in the special interest! Try to engage with them or talk to them about it. If you are a friend appreciate it about them and also try to engage with special/interests and obsessions if you can. And finally, If you are a fellow autistic person? Special Interest/Obsession on! May nothing ever undermine that which gives you so much comfort.

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