Autism and Special Interests
People with autism often have “special interests” – topics or activities that they are highly interested in, even obsessive about. These interests can take many forms, but the common theme is the importance these interests have for people with autism.
A recent study published in Autism Research and titled Special Interests and Subjective Wellbeing in Autistic Adults delved into the question of how common these special interests are among adults with autism and what impact special interests have on these people’s lives.
As it turned out, about two-thirds of the adults surveyed had special interests, with men being a little more likely to have special interests than women. The special interests spanned topics ranging from computers to nature and music to gardening. They even included the topic of autism itself! People commonly had more than one special interest.
Neither adults with special interests nor those without special interests reported higher levels of wellbeing on average.
That said, when people did have special interests, being more engaged with their special interests was associated with wellbeing and quality of life in several ways. Those who were more motivated to engage in their special interests reported higher subjective wellbeing. Autistic adults who were more engaged with their special interests also tended to be more satisfied with their social lives and their leisure time.
The exception was people who were far more engaged in special interests than average for adults with autism. Those who were very intensely engaged with their special interests, even by the standards of autistic adults, had lower subjective wellbeing on average.
For the most part, though, the research suggests that for adults with autism, engaging with special interests fosters happiness and mental health. In the words of the researchers, these findings “highlight the important role that special interests play in the lives of autistic adults” and ultimately point to the conclusion that “special interests had a positive impact on autistic adults.”
Image: Flickr/Jo Andy
So in this study, they found out the portion of autistic people who had special interests, how many had multiple interests, and the level of engagement in those interests, how wellbeing correlated with levels of engagement… I’d be interested in similar data collected from people in the general population. It kind of seems like “special interest” is a pathologized way of saying “hobby.” (Maybe it’s partially because a lot of autism research and resources are about children, and people don’t normally think of kids as having hobbies. Also, I think the meaning of the term “special interest” was originally a bit narrower than it currently is.)
Defining “special interests” is indeed a little tricky. The DSM talks about “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.” So by definition, that wouldn’t include “normal hobbies,” but where exactly would the line be? I agree that it would be interesting to research “special interests” in the general population. I’m not sure whether there’s been work on this, but it’s possible that “neurotypical” people with special interests might tend to have more mild autistic traits without actually qualifying for a diagnosis of autism.