One characteristic or autistic trait that is commonly seen in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, or Asperger’s Syndrome is a preoccupation with areas of “special interests.” So common is this trait of autism that it is listed as one of the diagnostic criteria of the disorder.
Special Interests as a Diagnostic Criteria
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-IV diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), having an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” is a core symptom of AS. In the newer updated version of the DSM, the DSM-V, the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder lists “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (such as strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests.”
What is the Difference Between a Hobby and a “Special Interest”?
A special interest can be anything from reading to an encompassing preoccupation with trains. They can have a broad focus such as photography, or be narrowly focused on only one particular photographer or type of photograph. These “special interests” appear on the surface to be the same as many people’s hobbies. However, the important thing to remember, what makes it a special interest defined in the autism criteria has to do with focus and intensity. When there is a preoccupation that encompasses every aspect of life, or is sought after with such intensity to the exclusion of everything else, it is considered a “special interest”.
Specials Interests Can Get Out of Control
When intensity and focus on an activity excludes everything else in the person’s life, the interest may be spiraling out of control. It is not uncommon for an autistic person to focus for hours on end engrossed in their area of interest. The intensity of focus shuts out the world around them to the point that hours and days can go by without even a thought of eating. Interruptions are unwelcomed, and can cause feelings of anger to surface. Even a routine bathroom break is seen as an unwanted interruption and source of irritation.
Autistic Individuals NEED Special Interests
Despite the seemingly negative aspects of these intense preoccupations, autistic individuals need special interests. Their intense focus makes them specialists in their area of interests. The degree of focus that can be obtained while working on these interests can allow many to excel in their fields. Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, these interests feed the autistic mind and soul. It is what calms, focuses, and brings pleasure. It is a way that these individuals decompress from a stressful day; a way to shut out the world for a while in order to refocus and recharge.
Intense narrowly focused interests remain a core symptom of those with autism spectrum disorders. It may initially appear that the appearance, or time spent pursuing these interests can be detrimental to the individual, but the opposite is true. The interest is of great significance to the person with autism, and should be nurtured. You may relax after a stressful day by reading the paper, or watching a football game—they relax and de-stress by pursuing their own special interests.