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The Dreaded Special Interest

One of the defining criteria for Asperger's is the presence of the special interest.

I'm going to write this post like a question and answer page to help me stay on topic. Once again, remember that generalizations are based on my experience and may differ from one aspie to the next.

Is it Forever?
Usually no, but it seems to be the case that some special interests will last a lifetime (or in my case, at least 35 years - the length of time (so far) of my "love affair" with Dr Who). Lifelong special interests will ebb and flow depending upon other factors, such as availability of new material and other concurrent interests. Sometimes they're quite subdued but they're always there.

Is it only one?
No - There are definitely multiple special interests running throughout an apsie's life, but they usually concentrate on one or two at a time. Eventually life-long interests fade to the background to such an extent that the aspie will be able to pick up another special interest without entirely dropping the first.

What happens when a Short-Term Special Interest Ends?

As a general rule, they end quickly. One day the special interest is there, the next it isn't and the aspie is left with all kinds of memorabilia which no longer fits their special interest.

At first, the aspie won't want to get rid of that stuff, after all, it may have cost a bit, or still have some significance but eventually, as the clutter gets too much they may reach a snap decision to get rid of it all.

About 5 years ago, I went through a cocktails making phase which lasted a couple of years. I ended up with a lot of bottles of various substances, many of which are unopened. I've still got a lot them at home because I find it difficult to just throw them out. Eventually I'll bite the bullet though.

(For a funny story about how I disposed of one, click here)

Is there a medical reason for the Special Interest
It seems so, there's research suggesting that aspie's are only able to concentrate on one thing at at time. This is normally for day-to-day processing but it seems to me that the whole special interest thing is a larger version of "one thing at a time).

What can I do as a Parent if I don't like the Special Interest?
Not much I'm afraid, just hope it will go away. If you nag about it, you're more likely to reinforce it or provoke other negative things (extra collecting, for instance).

When I was in 6th Grade, I was always borrowing Dr Who novelizations from the school library. The librarian and teachers got concerned about "formula fiction" and forbade me to borrow them anymore. This got me started on purchasing and collecting them instead. I now have hundreds (and I still buy and read them).

Occasionally a special interest will be obviously quite unhealthy, collecting scabs for instance. No.. I never did this but I know some kids who did. One in particular had a whole lunchbox full of them - yuck!

If the special interest is unhealthy, then as a parent, you shouldn't register distaste etc.. Just try to be neutral and disinterested. If possible, find something else and try to get your kids interested in that. Develop a "special interest" of your own and talk about it, get books about it etc... It sometimes rubs off.

Why don't Aspies Realize that I'm not interested?
The special interest is all-consuming. Young aspies don't realize that you're not interested - it sounds very interesting to them. Older aspies do realize and often they'll try not to discuss them. The trouble is, that aspies tend to think out loud and often talk to themselves, particularly about their interests.

They will often talk incessantly about things knowing that the other person has no interest. This will either be because they want to hear about it - even if it is only their own words out loud or because they feel that it's important for other people to know about the subject.

I frequently tell my poor wife about what's coming up in the movies, who a particular writer or director is and where they get their inspiration. She's not interested and will often talk over me. This makes me annoyed and resentful but I do understand that she's long-suffering and has little patience. Luckily for me, aspies tend to attract aspie friends or friends with similar interests.

Why won't my Aspie listen to me? I listen to them...
Aspies have a lot of trouble listening to things outside their special interests. If I'm at a party and someone starts discussing football, I feel left out and tend to walk away. If my wife starts talking about renovating, moving house or real estate, I also tend to switch off. At work, I'm fine while looking at most of our systems but I can't look at our financial systems without feeling out of depth because of the words.

Sorry, I don't really have an answer for you. The best I can suggest is that if you really need to discuss an off-topic idea with an aspie, give it to them in simple terms and preferably in writing. Give them a chance to digest it (and make sure they have a deadline).

If you have to be verbal, make sure it's "planned" - ie: that the aspie knows the topic will be discussed and that the area is generally quiet and free from distractions. Good luck...

What Can Parents Do?
First of all, learn to recognize a change in special interest when it hits and use these interests to your advantage.

For example; If you child develops an interest in spiders and insects, then you can do the following;

  • Math Homework to: "If five flies were flying and two got caught in a web, how many flies would be left"

  • English Homework: Use sentences like: "The Beetle WENT up the tree" - then get the child to read/spell certain words - That sentence had four of Kaelan's sight-words in it.

There's plenty more examples, but I wont waste space since I think I've got my point across.

What you need to teach your Children
Above all, try to teach your children;
  • "not everyone likes transformers" (or whatever the interest is)

  • How to read signs that people aren't interested.
    - Rolling or rubbing of eyes
    - Glancing away at other conversations, their watch etc.
    - Going back to pre-conversation activities - newspaper etc.
    - Shifting/Shuffling of feet
    - Disinterest key words "well, I'm happy for you" etc..
    - Statements of disinterest "well, I never got into that"

  • How to give people a chance to change the topic during conversation if you notice that they're bored
    - "Well, enough about me, what have you been up to?"
    - "Anyway, enough about frogs, what do you do in your spare time?"
    - "damn.. it's warm in here, what about the weather* isn't it crazy"

*assuming that weather ISN'T a special interest.

What can spouses do?
Put up with it mainly I guess... (sorry)

One thing my wife does to me, when I go out with a group is say "you're not allowed to talk about computers,religion or movies". It never works but it does remind me that I need to steer the subjects a bit to make sure everyone feels included. Religion, by the way, isn't a special interest of mine, but is an interest of a good friend.

Giving an aspie a rule sometimes helps in a big way.

Sometimes when the conversation stays too long on a special interest, my wife will give me a certain look, or signal. This is usually enough to get me to start steering the conversation away.


Anonymous said…
I scored rather high on the aspie scale and rather low on the NT scale.(This could be due to a sudden social and environmental change)I'm not clinically diagnosed, though the symptoms are prevalent, so I'm troubled over the scores. It's funny we have the same long term special interest, Doctor Who, from age 3 to 31. This adds synchronicity to my speculation. Is it worth getting properly diagnosed? How would it help me?
Unknown said…
In your experience, are "special interests" and "hobbys" synonymous?
For example, I am into both Han Radio and Photography (about 35 years now). But I am not obsessed with them, I have bouts of high and low activity depending mainly on time available. My wife thinks that "hobbys" are a sign of Aspergers. I believe it's the "obsession" aspect which come in with Aspergers. I have never been diagnosed though my wife has given me the diagnosis nevertheles.....
Gavin Bollard said…
Special interests often drive hobbies. For instance, my obsession with computers got me into anything computer related, programming etc.

Special interests also drive collections; for example my "Cocktails" interest phase caused me to collect many types of alcohol. It wasn't a "hobby" though, simply a collection.

I've got a friend who has a special interest of Religion. He doesn't collect statuettes and nobody would refer to his church-goings as a hobby. It's simply an obsession.
Emily Seeger said…
Hi, my name is Emily. I'm doing a research paper on Asperger syndrome and the recent changes with the APA that have affected the syndrome. I was hoping that you could answer a few questions for me, completely informal.

-What is your opinion on the recent decision to make Asperger's an ASD?
-What is the most difficult part of having Asperger's for you?
-Is being an adult with Asperger's any easier than being a child with Asperger's?

Thank you so much. I'd really appreciate your insight, and have truly enjoyed reading your blogs.
Gavin Bollard said…

To answer your questions;

What is your opinion on the recent decision to make Asperger's an ASD?

Aspergers has always been an ASD. The recent decision is to remove the term aspergers and simply refer to it as "autism".

I'm pleased that Aspergers and High Functioning Autism are being considered as one. They're too alike to make sense separately.

I'm not pleased that Aspergers/HFA is being considered the same as Non-verbal Autism.

My concerns are two-fold.

Firstly, I believe that it will result in an uneven distribution of funding as people with Kanner's autism need much more assistance than those with Aspergers/HFA.

Treating them as the same thing may result in funding being reduced for those with non-verbal autism.

My second concern is that Autism is a "spoiled term". When people hear that someone is "Autistic", they immediately apply Hollywood "rain-man" or "generic rocking-child" references to it. General autism is quite different from this - and aspergers is extremely different.

What is the most difficult part of having Asperger's for you?

The most difficult part of having aspergers for me has always been social situations. My comorbids don't affect my learning ability (unlike my son) so, I did well academically. The issues are almost entirely social.

Is being an adult with Asperger's any easier than being a child with Asperger's?

It's not any easier or harder, it's simply a completely different set of challenges. Things have become much easier since I've learned about aspergers (I didn't know what was causing my issues before) but I'm still just as lost as ever in social situations. It doesn't seem to be something you can "train".
Anonymous said…
Hi Gavin - Just came across your blog on Special Interest. That's the third person I've read/heard about that has Doctor Who as a special interest. My wife and I suspect I may have Asperger's. Am due to be assessed formally in June, but did two online tests and both suggested am in the Aspie range. And my special interests include WHO! Since about age 5..... Along with cricket.... And music.... Just wanted to drop you a line (am in Victoria, Australia) and say thanks for giving a brief insight into the special interest realm.
All the best
I have AS and it seems like my special interests have changed a lot quite over the past few months.

For example, I was interested in 'Toy Story' for about a month or so. (EXTREMELY short-lived).

Also, one of my special interests, a band called "Great Big Sea" has been on and off in the past 6 years. It's currently back right now.

I am OK with talking about things outside my special interests, however, they are some things that I just don't like talking about. TV and sports are probably the main ones. Sports can be OK sometimes, depends on the situation, but TV is just a topic that bores me to death. When someone talks about something they saw on TV, I don't usually tell them not to talk about it or anything. (Though I may get a little spacey).

The truth is, there is no topic that everyone likes to talk about it. So everyone is going to get bored listening to what someone's saying at some point in their lives. Even when neurotypical people talk to neurotypical people. People have different interests.
Andreas said…
My most consistent special interest has been the mind. I was always interested(obsessed) with what others were thinking.
When I was little, they called me the "What If" boy.
What if: the sun was gone, the street broke open, you had wings, people had 4 legs... non-stop questions. I got a little older and started asking "What would you do if..." (harder for them to avoid full answers, haha).
Later that came to be psychology. I've been known to cheerfully interrogate people...

Just like you said, they fade, and then sometimes they revamp.
My main ones are Psychology, Biology, and History. They mix and match. Neuroscience is my major, I minored in history. Now I'm fascinated by genealogy (hist/bio) then genetics jumped in.

I've always felt resentment and annoyance when people don't listen to me. I am very polite. and will listen to them. even if the bore me, so I feel they should do the same. Small talk is definitely one of these areas. If I can sit through that, please return the favor... :) Growing up, the signs of boredom become more visible but it was always overridden by my sense of etiquette and fairness.

How do you feel when you talk to other aspies? Do you listen to them go on? I generally do, and wait my turn.
Liam said…
I scored high on the aspie scale and very low on the neurotypical scale im not clinically dianosed yet, but i show alot of the symptoms i was first suspected of having asperger's 2 years ago from my school counsellor been trying to get diagnosed for 11 months i would have got diagnosed a year ago but i didnt know what the school was talking about, it would explain my obsessive special interests i get obsessed with songs and listen to them for about 6-7 hours and many days after and i have been obsessed with electromagnetics and electrical flight systems for about 3 years now, mum sayed that those topics are not normal for a 14 year old and was not normal to talk about all the time, just wanted to know if this is normal for someone with Asperger's
Anonymous said…
I scored high aspie test. I have a few long term special interests (nature of time,understanding the internal workings of the spacetime contiuum, and neanderthals and multilevel chess), but I also can assign an interest in something new. When asked to help with a problem that seems to have no answer, I tell the person 'I will make that my new interest'....and then me and my subconcious will find the answer ....may take a week , may take 7years, but we will find a solution to the problem. then that wont be my interest anymore. So we do have a choice in some of our special interests. My best freind is my Subconcious and together we solve the problem. My subconcious is a genius. Do other aspie have a close relationship with their subconcious?
Anonymous said…
Okay you guys. My special interest is people getting clinically diagnosed as having Aspergers in an inpatient medical environment were you have a boatload of doctors observing you 24/7. And yes, coupled with honesty and factualizational thinking, my female aspieism's "special interest, Section C is: Having others use PROVEN science to diagnose their Aspergers. Stop labeling yourself one just because you scored your own self as one! This is complex in its hugumbous absurdity!!!!!! Dont make your OCD and fixations and fetishes count as Aspergers, ESPECIALLY if you are married--As it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT, even for the highly advance aspies such as I am labeled, to even HAVE a relationship THAT close. EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY DIFFICULT. Please respect Aspergers. Do not throw the word around like a person throwing poop around! It is incorrect and harmful.
Myrtone said…
Can special interest, especially oddball ones, lead to impractical thinking, such as in this possible example.
Anonymous said…
Well, kind of explains things.

Results, I'm more than likely an Aspie.

126 and 34
Unknown said…
One point I've got to disagree with you on is the getting rid of the paraphernalia we accumulate during the active phase of a special interest. To me, and I would suspect with a lot of other Aspies, the items collected represent a time in our lives and we become quite sentimental about those objects. As Tony Atwood puts it, they represent his or her identify and history and getting rid of them is akin to having a finger amputated!

That's how it is for me anyway!
Unknown said…
Great article.

I'm a recently diagnosed Aspie and as part of the run up to my diagnosis I wondered, if I had a Special Interest or not.

Your point that yours can ebb and flow were a really good description of my experience. Recently I'd heard it put that Aspies can have Special Interests and also a narrow range of interests. Not sure which mine is.

I'm heavily into photography and Photoshop but also into anything to do with computers and technology.

If, like me, you sit on the fence about whether you have a Special Interest or not or you're not sure what one is this video might be of interest (it's a speeded up version of me editing in Photoshop- 4.5 hours condensed to 3 minutes).
Literat said…
(Special) Interesting article, thx.

As I suspect myself to be an Aspie, I stumble across the special interest aspect and I am not entirely sure what's the difference between a NT special interest and an Aspie special interest.

Just thought about my special interest and studying atmospheric science. While other students only learned the necessary content, I went deeper into the topic. So deep that I even neglected the studies while I was caught by me special interests. Even before important exams. I published numberous articles and draft papers in different forums and websites consuming most of my spare time.

Therefore, I think main difference is the intensity of special interest, when social contacts become secondary.

Today, scientific research stepped into the background but I use much time for photography and photo stories which can be as time-consuming as scientific writing before.
Literat said…
(Special) Interesting article, thx.

As I suspect myself to be an Aspie, I stumble across the special interest aspect and I am not entirely sure what's the difference between a NT special interest and an Aspie special interest.

Just thought about my special interest and studying atmospheric science. While other students only learned the necessary content, I went deeper into the topic. So deep that I even neglected the studies while I was caught by me special interests. Even before important exams. I published numberous articles and draft papers in different forums and websites consuming most of my spare time.

Therefore, I think main difference is the intensity of special interest, when social contacts become secondary.

Today, scientific research stepped into the background but I use much time for photography and photo stories which can be as time-consuming as scientific writing before.
Dan said…
It is interesting what you say about special interests ebbing and flowing. I have had some that have been fairly much lifelong (I'm 49 now) and others have ebbed and flowed, but others seem to have burnt themselves out and released me, sometimes over only a couple of years.

By way of example, one of my earliest interests was cars. My grandmother used to tell the story of me, at about 5, talking endlessly about cars as we walked together, pointing out this one and that one, and correcting her when she identified one wrongly. That one has lasted until about ten years ago, and really took hold in my teens and 20s as I thouroughly immersed myself in every little detail, bought books, pulled cars apart, volunteered in a car museum etc. I could probably bore for Australia on the details of the different Chevy engine and head casting numbers at one time. It has ebbed considerably since then, as other things have taken over.

Others have lasted shorter periods. I had a real thing for cricket at one time, and read everything I could find, practiced every waking moment, and thorougly immersed myself (as you do). It was a bit self-limiting though, because my clumsiness and lack of ball skills meant I was really no good at it, despite all the practice, and only once was picked to play (and dropped after one game). As a result it burned out.

As I've got older I can recognise the grip of an obsession coming on, but it is difficult to fight it. When all the books piled near the bed are on the same subject, and all your "favourites" link to websites on it, and the house is littered with evidence of it, and your family are saying "please, can we not talk about..." then it is pretty obvious really. Currently for example the bookshelves, favourites, tackle littered around the house and boat outside say "angling", which at least is reasonably socially acceptable and would almost pass as a hobby I guess, especially if I was to go out and do it rather than reading about it and buying gear ;-)
Anonymous said…
I am 23, I live at home with my parents and I am suspected of being an Aspie but I am struggling to get a formal diagnosis - there is strong evidence in favour of it in my case.

My 'special interest' or obsession is Dressage, in particular the breeding aspect of it. I research bloodlines of dressage horses for fun, notice trends in what each stallion or mare passes on to their foals and quite often try and make a few fantasy pairings. I study the horses offered for sale dressage auctions, looking at their movement and bloodlines, and use their information to pick who I think will gain top lot - I have had much success and a few famous riders now have horses I have picked out in their stables (they don't know I did mind, this is something I do by myself). I'm lucky in that my parents have been very supportive of me, they take me to shows to broaden my knowledge and are encouraging me to start a blog of my own to show the dressage industry what I can do.
I struggle with the social aspect of life; I find it difficult to use the phone and to read messages that pop up on Facebook or through my email for fear of what they might say, I only have a few friends - I lost many when my suspected Aspie-ness began to really show itself (it was always there but they didn't know how to cope with me anymore), and I barely leave the house as it is easier than dealing with other people.
Unknown said…
As someone who was diagnosed with Aspergers at 11, I totally understand. Obsessions can last for long periods, sometimes only for 2 to 3 weeks - Recently, I got on a Wonder Woman obsession (In particular the Lynda Carter one.) I don't know how it started, but it did. There are benefits to obsessions like that. First of all, I expressed my obsession with fanfiction writing. I completed 4 stories and as a result, did not drink alcohol, did not eat bad foods and saved my money for when I really needed it, which in the long run, really helped me. Also, being a man who doesn't like to have to swallow his pride compared to a strong woman, I got back into the gym after taking a few weeks off, so I lost a bit of weight (I also spent so much time writing I forgot half the time to eat so I lost weight that way too.)
Having an obsession can really irritate people you work with, cause that's all that's on your mind and you want to talk about it and say things, but you know they don't want to hear about it.
What absolutely sucks about obsessions is that you can get weirdly obsessed with things...and people - and you make up creepy fantasies about how to meet that person.
For what I've learned, it's best to amplify the advantages and do your best to ignore the disadvantages and get through it without too much damage, both financially and socially.

AC said…
This thread has been reassuring for me. I was worried that i didn't have a lifelong special interest and I was sure I was supposed to have one.

I tend to flit between interests that can last between a few weeks or a few years. What is consistent is the obsessive way that I persue whatever is my current interest.
Anonymous said…
Hi I'm twelve and i have A.S and I think with my A.S I found my Special Ability that will help me when I get older. well I was at school today it was Monday I was sitting at my desk and we were taking a spelling test, and I thought I was just going to drop out half-way BUT, I didn't I just kept going, and going, and going, so then when i got to the last 70th word it got really hard it had lots of hard words but I just did it. I completed almost all of the words out of seventy... and I'm twelve. so when i got home and had a big fight with my keys to get into my house, I weep'd for a little but then i stopped to call my mum and i told her and stuff.BUT, then i called my dad and I told him about my day and i also told him i will get a piece of paper (which btw was an envolope from my mums desk (don't worry it wasn't touched) so then i told him to tell me a really hard word and i will wright it and tell you through the phone then i basicly wrote all the words right. and when i was 11 I couldn't even read because I had been in special needs for 3 years and a little while ago I didn't even know what times tables were but now i can do that really well (seriously when i looked at a calculator i didn't even know what that cross was /= ) but now its getting clearer to me. just because I"m twelve doesn't mean i can't be who i cant be and my A.S wont stop me from learning my words it will help me.
Caregiver2 said…
If your spouse has an obsession with dogs what do you do? Dogs are her life. All of life's activities involve the dogs. Her home office is wall to wall dog related ribbons and pictures.
The obsession has lasted years and restricts travel and social activities.
I fear it will just grow stronger and she is unable to control her constant need for more dog time.
It is exhausting and lonely for me. Yet I know she is not doing it to hurt me.
What do I do?
My boyfriend of 2 years I believe has aspergers.
He is a sound man and was a drummer in a band and cannot seem to stop buying drums and sound equipment.
It's upsetting to me because he will be on his last dollar and the minute I pay him half the rent/bills, he's out the door to but more "toys" as he calls them.
I love him but the house is beginning to look like the backstage area of a rock concert and I'm concerned he will have no savings for retirement. He's 47 and even though I have recently vocalized my feelings he just keeps on searching the internet for more "deals"
Holly said…
Hello. I have a thirteen year old son that has no diagnosis, but I came across your blog because I was looking for advice and have wondered before if he could have aspergers. My son gets these goals around video games he likes to play, and his single minded interest in accomplishing them creates a significant amount of stress to him when he has to stop to do anything else (such as school work). He says he wants to do the things we ask him to (like school) but it never goals well when he is so distracted with his gaming goals. I am wondering if you have any advice or suggestions for helping him manage his internal stress related to these goals (obsessions?)? Thank you!

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