This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
When I was nine years old, my teacher began to read us a book that would change my life. I was frequently ill that year and missed a lot of school so I ended up having to read the book on my own in order to catch up. So it was that I began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I soon had devoured Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban which were the only other books out at the time. Soon, I was obsessed. I read and reread each book. I anxiously awaited the release of each new book, the anticipation almost unbearable. I collected everything Harry Potter that I could get my hands on from board games to trading cards to figures. I would sit for hours reading the cards from the trivia game I had trying to memorize everything I could about the Harry Potter universe. My mother, wonderfully supportive as she is, would play the games with me frequently as I typically had no one else to play with. My world revolved around Harry Potter. I could gush endlessly about anything Harry Potter related and never grew tired of it. I always felt that my love of Harry Potter went beyond that of most fans despite the rabidity of the fandom. It wasn’t until many years later that I would discover the term for my obsession and understand that my experience of Harry Potter really was different. It was when I discovered that I am autistic that I learned that Harry Potter was my first special interest and remains one of my special interests to this day.
Special interest is a non-medialized term for what is described in the DSM-V as “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.” Put more simply, a special interest is an interest that is very intense and/or has a very narrow range of focus. Special interests are generally very obsessive and may interfere with day to day functioning due to their intensity. However, special interests are also special in the unique joy and comfort they bring to autistic people. Most autistic people experience intense happiness when they encounter anything related to their special interest and may turn to their special interest as a source of comfort during hard times. For instance, during the times when I was without friends growing up, I would turn to the pages of Harry Potter to find my friends. The characters were as real to me as any friend I had ever had. Autistic people also tend to collect things related to our special interests, much in the way that I collected everything I could find that related to Harry Potter.
A term commonly associated with special interests is info-dump or info-dumping. This is a term for when an autistic person gushes about their special interest, quite literally dumping information. Most autistic people with special interests know a great deal about their special interest, often including many obscure facts and tidbits. Many of us feel driven to talk at length about our special interests, often with little input from the person we are talking to. This is referred to as info-dumping. We may also try to work our special interests into conversation whenever possible, even when there is no relation to the conversation.
Autistic people are often very protective of our special interests, even to the point of having difficulty with the idea of other people being interested in the same thing. We can also be very defensive of our special interests and may not be able to recognize faults in our special interest due to the degree of connection we feel with the subject. Others criticizing our special interests can be very distressing for us, even to the point of meltdowns/shutdowns. However, this behavior is unhealthy and should be addressed by the autistic person in question. If is fine to feel a sense of protectiveness about a special interest, but it is important not to ignore faults or issues surrounding the subject or to become aggressive towards others who enjoy the same subject.
Autistic special interests are beautiful things. Special interests can bring so much joy and comfort to an autistic person and are often one of the few constants we can count on which is very important to those of us who have difficulty with change. While special interests can become detrimental to an autistic person when the person engages with their special interest at the cost of other necessary life activities, special interests are, overall, very beneficial to autistic people and can be a large part of our identities. Long before I knew I am autistic, Harry Potter was a cornerstone of my identity, the characters and stories held within having shaped how I view the world and being my constant companion when others abandoned me. While special interests may seem odd to those who are not autistic, they are generally harmless and should be respected by all.