“My special interest is rocks.”
That phrase to the untrained ear is simple. “Oh, that’s nice,” someone might say. However, this phrase is anything but simple. It is a key which unlocks a door to infinite untapped potential in the minds of people with Autism. If you understand your special interest (or the special interest of someone you care for with Autism) you have a powerful tool in your possession. Take a second to think about something you love that makes you happy. It can be an activity, a favorite subject, a thing you collect, or a living thing. What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? What is the last thing you do before you go to bed? Chances are there is something that stands out that gives you joy and comfort even if you are overwhelmed and need to calm down. That is your special interest.
Everyone regardless of neurological functioning has some kind of interest. The difference between neurotypical people (those without Autism) and people who have an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is that a special interest is not just something to do when you’re bored or because you just like that thing. It is something you need to think about, to do, to focus on like you need air to breathe. I can’t bury my interest in rocks and gemstones and minerals (no pun intended). I can suppress it for a while or get equally interested in something else that doesn’t leave as much time for rocks, but I can’t just stop being interested in them. This is also the second biggest chasm of difference that exists between people with an ASD and neurotypicals after communication. My opinion is the same for understanding the special interest as it is for understanding how to communicate. Our brains work differently and just because it might not make sense to someone without an ASD doesn’t mean we are wrong for thinking this way or feeling so passionate about something. We need to help people who don’t think the way we do to understand how we think. We need to talk about our special interests and engage in them but not without balance and control. There is a fine line between a healthy special interest, and an unhealthy obsession that traps us in a cycle of repetitive behavior and doesn’t allow for personal growth.
My interest in rocks, for example, could spiral easily out of control. I could spend hours upon hours looking at pictures, reading mineral guides, buying crystals, and sorting through my collection. I could go into debt by spending every cent I have on minerals especially rare crystals. I could ignore my hygiene, my responsibilities, and my family because rocks make me feel comfortable and provide a fixation that can override the constant stream of thoughts running through my head like iterations from a radio distress call. I could do all those things, and I might slip up and spend too much time looking at rocks and reorganizing my cabinet displays, but for the most part I only allow myself the time to engage in my special interest after everything else is done. I have learned to tap into my interest as motivation to get through the rest of my responsibilities when I am feeling too spent to do anything rather than letting my interest control me.
It isn’t as difficult as you might think to channel your energy into getting things done that are required of you. First, you have to have motivation. It can be your love of your special interest, encouragement from a significant other, devotion from a pet, or just plain motivation to become a better person. Once you have that you can use that to drive your actions ahead knowing that there is a goal that is attainable. Don’t be afraid to use your interests to not only drive your energy to complete tasks around the house or at work, but to challenge yourself socially. The Internet is full of online forums, groups, and websites devoted to millions of hobbies. A quick Google search could probably find a handful of clubs or groups that share your interest, and it would be good to be able to make friends who share your interest. (Bonus points if there is a club or group that meets near you that you can go to to make friends off-line as well.) You can build friendships or practice with social skills and communication with people who share your interest and will probably be eager to talk about things you enjoy. My interest in rocks has led me to join rockhound groups, but it also has given me the opportunity to practice using good judgment and self-control. I have to be able to look at rocks for sale and have enough restraint to just look. I have to be able to make good choices about which pieces to buy, which sellers are honest and worth purchasing from, and which deals to walk away from because they are too good to be true. It is all real world applicable to learn how to do this online and then be able to implement it in person in a place like a car dealership or when you need to turn down a girl scout and were afraid to say no before. Social skills can be learned and practiced over time, and while it is exponentially harder for us to understand social cues which we may never understand fully at all, it can help us be able to function within society to be successful by any standard. It also helps that I have a budget for my purchases. I spend only what I have saved for rocks specifically, and I never buy more than I can afford with that money. I also make all my necessary and important purchases first even if I hate paying them. Bills for electricity and insurance always come first, then important things like groceries and pet supplies. I know I thrive on routine, and while it may be difficult to establish a new routine either for spending or time management, it is worth it. I don’t have to plan out what to do and when, and I can spend that energy I would have used to think and process on just doing everything and getting it out of the way. I can dangle the proverbial carrot to get done what I need to in order to pursue my interests or just to be able to sit down and do absolutely nothing but still have a sense that I accomplished everything I had set out to do.
The biggest rule I have, however, isn’t to get everything done like you might think. My biggest rule is do what I can and be okay with myself if I can’t get everything done that I want to get done. My set up which puts my special interest last but allows me to still pursue it almost guarantees that I will get the majority of my necessary work finished without squandering my time looking at rocks and not accomplish anything else. It has taken me a long time to find this balance of responsibility and my passion, but it is incredibly powerful to look back to a time when I was struggling to do even the basic necessities and see how far I have come to being able to even recognize I needed a good balance of adulting and rockhounding let alone implementing it. Use your interests to help you. They can motivate you, help you grow socially and in maturity, and allow you to connect to others with the same interests. Those passions might even lead to higher education degrees or careers or as a self-sustaining income. For example, if you like to make jewelry or craft projects you can sell them on Etsy or sell them at craft fairs. If you have an interest in how electrical components in computers work you could go to school to become an electrical engineer. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and use your interests to help yourself along. There are dangerous interests which might lead to trouble with law enforcement such as experimenting with explosive materials or having a special interest in a person who could become uncomfortable by your overbearing interest in them. (Stalking may not be your intention, but it won’t matter to someone who doesn’t understand how your brain works when that is what it appears to be to them.) Those only make up a small percent of interests that I know of and generally those don’t apply but be cautious that your interests don’t fall into a category that might infringe on laws or regulations where you live.
The special interest is a mighty tool to drive you to better yourself and help you pursue things you might not have thought possible. Don’t be afraid to use your passions to your advantage and to use them as motivation to do things that you need to do but might not want to. Just remember to try and find a healthy balance between doing things you love and doing things that might be uncomfortable but will help you grow. Everyone has an interest, but you have a special gift of an undying and relentless passion that if used in the right way can lead you on amazing journeys of opportunity. Take advantage of that.