If you know an Autistic person or are Autistic yourself, you are familiar with the intense interests and consuming passions that we can get so engrossed by that we forget to eat, sleep, or even use the bathroom. While not every Autist has one or more deeply-lived interests*, the laser-focus with which we can approach preferred things is generally considered one of the hallmark traits of autism.
An Australian research study from 2016 demonstrated the tremendous value of going directly to Autists, by asking us about this tendency in order to discern our motivations. The researchers wanted to answer the question: why are Autists drawn with such intensity to the things that catch their interest? To that end, they developed a 20-item, self-administered assessment called the Special Interest Motivation Scale (SIMS). Statements about why one pursues one’s deep interests such as “because I enjoy broadening my knowledge about my special interest” were ranked on a seven point Likert scale.
The 20 items were divided into five broad categories:
- Personal life values and goals
- Intrinsic interest and knowledge
- Engagement and “flow”
Based on the results of the SIMS—from 158 professionally-diagnosed Autists (86 males and 72 females), 185 non-autistic parents of Autists (35 males, 150 females), and a control group of 267 people with no autism and no psychiatric history (193 males, 74 females)—the study found that Autists had a higher motivation to pursue interests than non-autistic parents or controls.
The highest particular motivations were intrinsic and associated with “positive affect”—in other words, we pursue our interests because it makes us happy. This is one of the best, most accurate scientific studies of an Autistic trait I’ve ever seen. That’s exactly why we pursue strong interests — it is inherently satisfying and fulfilling to us.
While some intense interests can lead to satisfying careers, it’s important that our interests not be considered valid or valued according to monetary measures. I see so much emphasis placed on turning intense interests into a career; just last week on Twitter many Autistic adults were debating with a therapist who had said that no Autistic child should be permitted to pursue any intense interest that would not lead to a career.
A valid argument the Autistic adults were making was that you can’t predict whether an interest would lead to a career or not—some do and some don’t. Some topics that seem ill-suited for vocational purposes lead to a life’s calling, while some rather mainstream interests like math or history have not turned into a career for the Autists who intensely pursued them.
But setting that argument aside for the moment, how can it be good for a child to forbid them to pursue an intense interest that is bringing them deep joy and feelings of self-worth and satisfaction? Yes, of course children (and adults!) cannot spend every waking moment pursuing an interest to the exclusion of all other activities. But the therapist with whom we debated talked about preventing all non-vocational interests.
Do we insist that non-autistic children cannot watch their favorite cartoon because it is not likely to lead to a future career? Of course we don’t! Most parents will not allow their child to park in front of the television 24/7, but the thought of telling a child they cannot ever watch Steven Universe because it will not lead to a good career is absolutely ludicrous! Do not hold Autistic children to unrealistic standards their non-autistic peers are not held to.
But there is a more serious reason still why Autistic people of all ages should be encouraged to spend time pursuing their intense interests. (Yes, I said encouraged to pursue their interests, not merely permitted to pursue them.) Whether an Autist is deeply interested in calculus or crochet, plate tectonics or toilets, history or license plate numbers, astrophysics or plucking blades of grass, being encouraged to spend time with those interests is vital for preserving our mental health.
The Autistic members of our human family are in crisis. Anxiety and depression occur at alarmingly high rates, and our rates of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completions are horrifying. Encouraging Autists to spend time with our intense interests is not enabling or coddling us. It is crucial to our well-being, happiness, thriving, growth, and — overly-dramatic though it might sound to you — keeping us alive. Whether it’s categorizing every leaf from every tree in the neighborhood or taking 127 photos of the cat doesn’t matter. What matters is that the interest is special to us, of our own choosing, and warmly encouraged. I am not being hyperbolic when I tell you this is a matter of life and death for us.
The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a study last month which found that being accepted (or not) was significantly correlated with levels of depression among Autistic people. Let me spell what that means out for you: not accepting an Autist’s intense interest directly contributes to their depression. Accepting and encouraging an Autistic person to be true to themselves is healing and healthy.
When the researchers ran multiple regression analyses of their data, they found that being pressured to “camouflage” Autistic traits also makes Autistic people depressed. This means that it is counterproductive and harmful to have the goal to make an Autistic person “indistinguishable from their peers,” because that is the sort of pressure that leads to the shockingly high suicide rates researchers keep finding whenever they study us.
Oh, and the acceptance that Autistics need in order to be happy? The study found that it must come from within as well as from without. It’s not enough for the world to accept us; we must accept ourselves. I’m here to tell you that it is a tough task, trying to accept myself when the world clearly does not accept me. Autism acceptance from within is so much easier when I meet acceptance from without.
Autism acceptance therefore does not mean valuing me and my interests because they could earn me money some day—it means valuing me and respecting what I value, because I am a worthy human being deserving of dignity and happiness. I work hard to build up my own sense of self-worth, and encourage other Autistic people to build up theirs as well. Imagine my heartbreak and anger a few days ago when a parent commented on my YouTube video supporting suicidal Autistics and encouraging them to develop tools of self-acceptance and told the world that their child’s life was pointless because she would never marry, hold a job, or live independently!
Don’t bother looking for the comment; I removed it. But I am still reeling from it. How could a parent think it was okay to say their child’s life was pointless? And how cruel does a person have to be to say such a thing on a resource meant to help keep suicidal people—people like their own child—alive and aiming toward happiness? Cruel seems too mild a word for it. It was an evil thing to say.
Your life is not pointless. Your child’s life is not pointless. It doesn’t matter whether a person marries or not. It doesn’t matter whether a person drives, holds a job, feeds themselves, gets dressed without prompting, or not. No one’s life is pointless!
As Jesse Jackson told my generation on Sesame Street, whether you are poor, young, on welfare, small, make mistakes, have different clothes, a different face, different hair, are black, brown, white, speak a different language—no matter who you are, you must be respected, protected, never rejected, because you are somebody.
So the next time you are tempted to tell an Autistic person their interest is silly, trivial, a waste of time, weird, or pointless, stop—and remember why we love what we love. We are somebody, too, and we must be respected, protected, and never rejected. Encourage our intense interests. And if you are Autistic, do not feel ashamed of or guilty about your intense interests.
We love what we love because we are who we are. And that is a beautiful thing.
*While the standard term for these deeply satisfying interests is “special interest,” I only use that phrase when I’m quoting someone else. It’s a point on which I differ with a large number of Autists, but I don’t like the term “special interest” (often abbreviated as “SI”.) I feel like it belongs in the bin with similar terms like “special needs” and “special education.” As the Down Syndrome community’s public service campaign reminds us, our needs are not special.
I would argue that the only thing “special” about our interests is their meaning to us; our interests are special to us.
I don’t call them “special interests” because we don’t say Bob Ross’ interest in painting was “special” or that Dr. Richard Feynman had a “special interest” in teaching. Being passionately consumed with a topic is a positive trait and I feel like calling it “special” just because the person being passionately consumed is Autistic is unnecessarily “othering.” Autism is a difference in intensity and frequency of traits found in non-Autistic people as well.
However, many Autists do embrace this language and love calling their passions “special interests” and I do not fault them for it. If you are not Autistic and are interacting with someone who is Autistic you should always follow their lead as far as what language they would like their identity and experience to be framed in.