Special interest is a term used in the autistic community to describe the passionate and abnormally intense fixations autistic people generally have.
Although the stereotyped view of autism frequently gives way to images of special interests in categories of trains or numbers, special interests do not have to be in any certain topic to be considered an autistic trait. Rather, special interests are defined as an autistic trait based on their intensity, which is always beyond what is considered normal for neurotypicals.
Often times, autistic girls are not noticed for their special interests. Their special interests are similar in intensity to that of boys’, but they often do not have interests in the stereotypical categories described above. This may instead look like an obsession with unicorns, ballet, or even environmental activism (as in the case for Greta Thunberg).
While I had special interests predating this time, my first vivid memories of a special interest began in late elementary school when I started to fixate on pigs. I began amassing a collection of pig-related items that included everything from figurines to stuffed animals to books and even a hand-held pig vacuum. My collection eventually took over an entire wall of my room, quickly growing with every holiday and trip to GoodWill.
In addition to owning the largest pig collection on this side of the Mississippi, my special interest also included a deep knowledge of pigs gained from countless books and documentaries. By the 6th grade, I had completely removed pork from my diet, even forgoing the famous bacon my dad made every Saturday morning.
In school, every paper put in front of me was eventually stamped with my trademark cartoonish-pig drawings. This quickly drew the attention of other students and was the beginning of my masking of special interests.
I remember the first time I felt truly ashamed of this obsession occurred in my 6th grade English class. We were watching a movie and I, as I so often did, was drawing pigs on my notebook in-between taking notes. Eventually another student sitting near me began badgering me. He repeatedly made typical 6th-grade-boy-of-low-intelligence remarks regarding my drawings, how I was also a pig, how I must love drawing my “family”, and so on.
I began getting frustrated, not so much because of his insults, but mostly because he wouldn’t leave me alone. After several minutes of sustaining his incessant pestering, the teacher finally spoke up. Unfortunately, and to my greatest dismay, she told me I needed to quiet down. This caused a swirl of emotions inside that made it suddenly difficult to express why I was so upset and ended in a trip to the bathroom where I hid until I could stop crying.
By the 8th or 9th grade, I began toning down my special interest in pigs to appear more normal. Events like the one I described above mixed with the realization that other girls sleeping over found my booming collection off-putting, eventually moved me enough to pack up my collection into tubs that I carefully stored in my basement.
I never stopped liking pigs though, honestly I still think they’re such amazing and adorable animals to this day, but the push to conform (especially in middle school) was strong enough to force me to mask one of my most obvious autistic traits.
Now that I’m older with improved confidence and a firmer understanding of being autistic, I no longer make many attempts to hide my special interests from the neurotypical world. My special interests in autism, my dog, ethics, and Shrek are part of what makes me a unique person worth talking to.
Sure, I’m never going to blend into the manilla colored personality fog of regular society, but my ability to focus on something so strongly and passionately is a strength I wouldn’t trade. I represent the rainbow seen in the autism infinity symbol.
And that’s something I refuse to be ashamed of.