literature

Special Interests

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This is going to be the most meta thing I have ever written. I'm engaging my special interests by writing about special interests!



What even is a special interest?


You'll probably understand my excitement a little better if you actually know what I'm talking about.

Special interests are an aspect of autism that are pathologized as "narrow, obsessive" interests, but if you step away from the autism-is-a-disease mentality for a moment, you can consider the idea of them being pretty awesome. Special interests are sort of like a favorite subject or hobby, only they are way more passionate than anything a regular person would experience.

Special interests are the meaning of life. They can turn a bad day into an incredible one. They come with a focus so intense, it enables us to gather encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, letting us spout facts and tips about obscure problems. And we love it.

My special interests are:
  • Drawing
  • My current novel
  • Writing (fiction and nonfiction)
  • Autism
Can you see why I'm excited? As I write and illustrate this, I am using not only one, but three of my special interests! And I'm sharing it with people who like it!

Let's take a look at a few of the big traits of special interests.

They can be anything


My first special interest was The Wizard of Oz. I remember my dad reading it to me, both of us cuddled up on his big bed. I was Dorothy, my dad was the Tin Man, and my brother was Harvest (a character I had invented for him). We didn't do anything with these special identities, we just... were.

Most people think of the train tables stereotype when they think of autism. Memorizing large amounts of data is definitely special interest territory. It could also be baseball, or dog breeds. TV shows and movies are common; I have an autistic friend with a special interest in Steven Universe. Another collects foreign languages the same way I collect autism articles. (So much respect.) Another has a special interest in body piercings. You can probably guess what this friend looks like.

Special interests can be anything, from foreign policy to collecting the stickers that come on fruits.

A person who has several special interests may find that they are related to each other, or that they are completely different.

They're organized


When it comes to my special interests, I am very organized. (When it comes to my bedroom, not so much.)

When I was little, cats were one of my special interests. I had an ocean of stuffed cats in my toy chest. I sewed outfits for them with a clumsy hand. I played with them by pulling them out and sorting them into little societies, mentally labeling them with age groups, genders, and personalities. Danielle, a little tortoiseshell cat, was a diva with a love of fashion and helping others. Her sister Snowflake was shy, withdrawn, and graceful.

It was the same way I played with Legos: I'd fill the basement floor with an elaborate Lego town, complete with infrastructure and a very detailed house for my favorite superhero figurine, but I'd never act out a scene unless I was playing with someone else. Then, I took a reactive role, letting them lead the plot.

Today, my special interests are a little more practical, and the organization helps.

After seeing me click through a few folders, my dad remarked on how many I have. He hasn't seen the half of it. My bookmarks are overflowing with neatly-sorted links to various autism articles I've collected. When I type, I do so from mental archives of carefully-researched knowledge. Then I remember which articles I want to cite as sources, and I pull them up. I can remember the website layout, the name of the writer, the general points, and sometimes quotes.

Apparently it's unusual to be able to semi-accurately recite my favorite quotes from memory. (I used to think anybody could do that. But I'm told it's an autism thing.)

Unless you're getting bored here, I'll do one more example. Just kidding; I'm doing it no matter what you say.

The same principle of organization applies to my fiction writing. Unlike in autism, I create the facts of my story. I don't write them down; they're in my head. As I write my book, I'm keeping track of how each character feels, the various character arcs, the balance between various themes and subplots, and much more. I tried keeping track of it in a separate document once, but... well, I don't need a reference document that's longer than my actual book. So I quit that and keep the facts in my head.

Why am I overwhelming you with examples? Because I want to give you a very clear picture of what it can be like. You aren't just here to read: you're here to borrow from my personal autism stories, to steal and repurpose and be inspired. Read my examples with your autistic character(s) in mind, and start thinking of what they might be like.

Go back over my examples, but looking to copy, not just to read. How might your character behave similarly about their interests? What might their experiences have in common like mine?

They're all-consuming (in a good way... and sometimes not)


When I am writing, I am free.

Hours disappear. It's just my laptop and me, music playing, fingers typing away, body rotating through various happy stims. Life is bliss and energy and excitement. I am complete. My entire brain is unified on my task. I am doing what I was meant to be doing.

I know how it affects me, so I use my intense engagement in my special interests to cheer me up on difficult days. (Just like how you might use cute cat videos to improve a bad day.) Some time writing or drawing can massively improve my mood, occupying my brain with creative troubleshooting instead of worries about homework or thoughts of self doubt.

The downside of special interests being incredibly influential is... well, they're incredibly influential.

When special interests take up all of my brain, there's none of it left for other thoughts. Thoughts like "I should eat" or "I need to leave for class in 5 minutes" tend not to register. So these things might not happen.

Out of necessity, I've begun training myself to watch the time when I need to. (It helps that most of my interests are on my laptop, and it only takes a quick glance to the clock at the bottom of the screen.) I purchased a light-up timer that turns from green to yellow to red, and it makes sound to break me out of my hyperfocus trance.

It's much more fun to lose myself in a task, but I don't always have that liberty.

They shift over time


Cats and The Wizard of Oz used to be my special interests. Now they are not. For most of my life, I did not have my current novel or knowledge about autism, but now they are special interests.

Losing a special interest happens gradually, just like other interests that fade. Usually they're replaced by something else. Some people say they feel kind of sad, looking back on interests they once had. I remember them fondly, and while I no longer am passionate about them, they hold a special place in my heart. (I still give the neighbor's cat lots of love, even though I'm allergic to her. Much sneezing ensues.)

Special interests can come a lot more quickly. Sometimes it feels like turning on a lightswitch. I drafted my first draft of my current novel in only 13 days. It was a terrible story, but that was beside the point. One day I started it and became obsessed. I have a lot of missing memories from the time of my autism diagnosis, because I was very sick and over-stressed, so I can't tell you what starting that special interest was like.

Some people have one special interest at a time. Most people I know have multiple ones.

And sometimes, there are very ugly periods in which you have no special interests.

I remember such a period in my freshman year of high school. I had realized that my old novel was full of plot holes and not worth continuing, but I didn't have anything to replace it with. I felt like I was walking around with my soul cut out of me. When I was alone with my thoughts, I was... alone.

When I had a brief experience like this a few weekends ago, I described it to my dad, and he said it sounded a lot like going through a breakup. Only instead of losing a romantic partner, you've lost the meaning of life.

I was wandering through a world that held little that interested me.

I have no idea if that's what it's like to be non-autistic, but if so, it's a Very Horrible Disorder and I have nothing but sympathy in my hearts for the poor people afflicted with this epidemic. I can't imagine living such an empty life. We should, like, make a charity.

(Who says autistic people can't write stuff tongue-in-cheek?)

Personally, I hope that your autistic character has 1 or 2 reliable special interests, because it would be too heartbreaking to read about someone who has none.

They're really fun to share (infodumping)


Infodumping means exactly what a lot of people think it means: sharing a bunch of information about something.

Psychologists say that autistic people have absolutely no interest in sharing things with others, but clearly they haven't met me (or any of my autistic friends). Thing is, we love to talk about our special interests. Of course we do; it's our Ultimate Most Awesome Passion. If we detect any interest about our favorite subjects, we love to tell people all about them.

I will recite the latest funny quotes from a writer's guide to anyone who shows interest in what I was doing lately. I choose the funny parts because if they laugh, that means they like it and are indeed interested in this conversation, and because I am very proud of myself.

Here are some traits you may see in your autistic character about infodumping:
  • They can swoop in to the rescue when people have a problem related to the special interest. The people are glad to get help from an expert, and the autistic person gets to be the star and feel amazing. Everyone wins!
  • The infodump may be tailored to the listener's interests, and things the autistic person thinks the listener would like to know.
  • They have a hard time telling when people are genuinely interested. Some will talk your ear off. Others will very carefully check for interest. (I went through a very long phase of being afraid to talk about my interests at all, because I was afraid of being rude and talking too much. It was a lonely phase.)
  • Hints about ending the conversation may be missed altogether. Alternatively, the autistic person may anxiously over-analyze signs that they are boring their conversation partner.
  • The infodump can take a very long time and cover lots of information, especially if the listener is asking questions and encouraging the autistic person to continue.
  • A very sad trait: autistic characters who experienced therapy abuse may be afraid to discuss their interests at all. Some therapies use their interests against them, and others may try to stamp out all signs of autism, making the person afraid or ashamed of talking about their favorite things.

As you write infodumps, consider your autistic character's personality and backstory. This will affect how they interact with others.



How do I write special interests?


Offer useful bits of information in dialogue


My autistic character Zaen has a special interest in different cultures and how they work. Give him a big history book or place him in a town of a foreign country, and it'll be like setting him in a candy shop where everything is free.

Whenever I think readers could use some information about the setting, I just have him open his mouth. Zaen's encyclopedic knowledge of different places and cultures offers an easy way to integrate this information into my story.

This also offers the opportunity to infuse a little personality into your background information—how does your autistic character say it, and how do the others respond? What parts will the autistic character focus on? How do the other characters react to the infodump—are they bored, or do they encourage it?

Keep in mind that if the monologue goes on for a long time, your readers may lose interest. You can always end the scene in the middle of the infodump (implying that it continues) or switch to description.

For example,
"Zeniqua continued listening as Audrey outlined her sociology knowledge, asking questions and interjecting with comments. At times, she directed the conversation towards aspects that particularly fascinated her, and Audrey was happy to oblige with more information. The young women spoke with an energy that made the tiny room feel alive with life."
Now, that's a sign of a great relationship.

Balance usefulness with total fun


An autistic character with a special interest in criminology is perfect for a crime novel. A character with a special interest in botany might offer life-saving insight in a wilderness survival story. A character who studies martial arts will be in their element in a story with a lot of fighting.

But, of course, not every special interest is going to be practical.

Your criminologist might watch the same TV show over and over, repeating quotes that express their feelings at various times. Maybe the botanist memorizes obscure facts about metal music right along with obscure facts about plants. Your martial arts master might also collect cat figurines. (What? They're cute!)

To the martial arts master, both cats and fighting techniques hold a unique appeal. They're both energizing and comforting in a way, familiar in an appealing way. Cats and fighting stances are both collected with interest and love. The only difference is that society values one passion a lot more than the other.

Giving your character plot-relevant and non-relevant special interests allows you to strike a balance between plot development and character development, and seriousness and whimsy. It's an easy way to give your character more depth, beyond what the storyline demands. Everyone does non-useful things for fun, so this is a way to make your character seem less like a robot and more human.



In conclusion



Psychology has often pathologized special interests—i.e., treated them like a symptom of a sickness, instead of a difference that is harmless or even good. Your autistic character's special interests bring them a lot of joy and fulfillment in their life, and ultimately make them a happier person.

Autism is more than a one-dimensional tragedy or disease. In some ways, we have more challenges than non-autistics... and in some ways, we have things a lot better. I wouldn't give up my special interests for the world.

And as for your character? Well, when they have the opportunity... they get to have a lot of fun.

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CosmicCopperSulfur's avatar

my special interests include:

- daniel radcliffe - morges - harry styles - autism - p!atd's music - ocs