What makes an interest “special”?

The third Section B criterion for autism spectrum disorder in DSM V reads as follows.

Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.

These are commonly referred to as “special interests“, which begs the question: What makes them so special? The parenthetical describes them as “excessively circumscribed or perseverative” or as a “strong attachment or preoccupation with unusual objects“. From my own life experience, which I’ll explain later, I think this also can be intertwined with the first criterion with unusual attachment and preoccupation with and use of common objects, but that stands out much less obviously as a diagnostic criterion. (As an aside, perseveration is one of my new favorite words. It captures so much about my life in a single word thought.)

Apparently, a fixation with things like train and bus schedules are stereotypical male versions of this criterion. One of a number of reasons women are severely under diagnosed is because their “special interests” tend to be in more commonly accepted areas and are distinguished more by their intensity and focus than by the nature of the interest. In that regard (and others), I think I lean a bit more toward the female phenotype of autism than the male.

The difficulty in assessing yourself, of course, is that it’s hard to see where the line between “passionate” or “fascinated” and “fixated” or “abnormal” truly lies. Still, it’s easy for me to see some of them. Science fiction and fantasy have been a lifelong fascination of mine, to the extent that I read little other fiction. (And I tend to only read non-fiction to gather information in an area that is currently one of intense focus for me, so that section of my library is … eclectic.) I’ve had family members chide me for not broadening my reading habits, and I’ve sometimes felt somewhat shamed and tried to read other things, or at least pretended I had. A nickname I acquired in 7th and 8th grade was “SciFi” because I would always have a book with me and would tend to talk about them. At length.

But my books mean more to me than that. I organize different sets in different ways. Some by the size of most of them. Series go together and authors generally belong with all their works. I like hardbound, but where I have paperbacks that go with other books, I’ll lay them on top of the hardcover volumes with which they belong. If you look at my library, it will appear disorganized and haphazard, but there’s actually a beautiful order in its arrangement. I read and reread books in my library, but there’s more to it than that. I need to have all the volumes in a series or sometimes all the works by a particular author, even if I don’t plan to immediately read them all. Any gaps will bother me until I fill them. It’s comforting to be surrounded by my books in a way I’m not sure I can describe. I like to look at them and touch them, but it’s soothing and calming even when I just feel them around me when I’m sitting and working at my computers.

I’ll cull books sometimes that don’t fit or have no special meaning to me, but I never voluntarily get rid of a book unless it’s incidental or a casual read I was given or picked up along the way. Once, as a young teen, my mother decided my “obsession” with my library was bad for me and made me throw out many of my books. That’s still as seared in my memory as many of the things that, to an external observer, appear much worse. It was awful in a way I’m not sure I can describe.

I’ve long had a similar interest in comics, though any time I let myself start collecting, it quickly gets out of control. I’m actually going to have to rein in that compulsion again since I’m getting far more than I have any time to read. But even when I’ve restricted myself from collecting any, I’ve followed the trends and happenings with my favorite characters and the universes they inhabit. I did that in bookstores and libraries and comics shops for some years. The Internet has made it much easier to stay abreast.

Especially when I was young, I was fascinated by games. I would play any game and seek to master its intricacies going back as far as I can remember. When I was in 5th grade though, I discovered Avalon Hill games. They were extraordinarily intricate with detailed, complex rules. My cousin and I would play out games and spend hours designing our own scenarios. We would play all night with no sleep. During that period of time, I even developed my own game which I remember my Dad thought was a fantastic game that should be marketed. Unfortunately, I don’t remember it at all and the board, pieces, and rules have long since been lost in the mists of time.

I dived into RPGs in 9th grade and loved them. I transferred that love to video games. In the 80s, my roommate and friends and I would gather around and play Bard’s Tale on my C64 for hours together. I stayed away from MMOs when they came out because I knew I would get overly absorbed in them. However, when my younger son was in 9th grade, he wanted to play WoW. I let him, but only if I played also so I knew what he was doing. And I loved it as I had suspected I would. After about a year we were both at max level and I joined an adults only raiding guild that was just starting. I spoke with the guildmaster and he agreed to let me son join as well. We kept our relationship quiet until he was 18 and approaching high school graduation. In that time, he had recruited for the guild and helped people improve gear, led raids and pushed his characters in directions they weren’t supposed to be able to go. (His main was a druid and during Burning Crusade, bears weren’t supposed to be able main tank raids. He was very successful at doing so even while leading the raid and coordinating everyone else.) The guild was very surprised when he revealed his age and that he was my son. When he became too busy to play as a sophomore in college, I forced myself to stop playing as well. I know how much games can consume me and I’ve learned to guard against it as I’ve gotten older.

My career has been in IT, which seems like one of the fairly common fields for those on the autism spectrum from what I’ve read. However, I wouldn’t say computers have ever been a particular, focused interest in an autistic sense. I’m fairly proficient in pretty much all major aspects of the field, though I generally tell others I always approach things from a programmer’s perspective first. I find the field fascinating. I enjoy that it requires continuous learning. I’ve accomplished some things over the years that even my highly proficient coworkers consider noteworthy and unusual. I “see” patterns which helps me both visualize ways things could tie together and work and helps me quickly perceive points of failure. But when I assess my life, computers have never held that same intensity of focus. I’m just good at it and generally enjoy doing it, which is the normal best case most of the time with a profession.

There is one corner case exception which actually has had an impact on my career and income. In the mid-90s, we were just deploying IP to replace x.25 at work and I was working with others to set a variety of things up on our development center network. It was alongside my development work, which is pretty normal for programmers. We’re always dabbling in something, or at least the good ones are. In the process, we needed to get DNS working properly for a variety of reasons. At that time, usage on our enterprise network was spotty and erratic and I started working with other technical people across the country to get their varying implementations better coordinated and integrated. Somewhere along the way, I became fascinated by the DNS protocol, its many permutations, its standards, its wire format, and all aspects of it. And as I developed the depth and breadth of my knowledge, I could make better suggestions and everyone just started implementing them. Before long, without any official assignment or authority, I had become the architect for our internal enterprise DNS. Everyone looked to me any time there was an issue, integration requirement, or design question. DNS, of course, has continued to grow over the years and I’ve remained deeply invested in studying it in all its variations, even though for most of that period it wasn’t part of my job.

However, a number of years ago, enhancements to the standard, new requirements, and various mandates created a situation where that DNS architecture at work needed to be redesigned from the ground up to meet those modern needs. Everyone our executives asked told them they needed me to do it right. So I was basically promoted into a job with that as one of my primary responsibilities. It’s not my only responsibility, of course. I always acquire additional responsibilities pretty quickly. For instance, I’m also the technical lead for our IPv6 transition PMO. But it is a major piece of my current job and the primary reason I got it. So in that instance, an interest that has been restricted and unusual in its intensity and perseveration also eventually proved beneficial in material ways.

I’m not sure it’s possible to truly explain to anyone who isn’t autistic the visceral intensity that accompanies an interest meeting this criterion. It’s not just that you really, really like it. There’s a need almost like a hunger that accompanies it. Removing or limiting the interest, which I’ve done sometimes as noted above, is still distressing even when it’s voluntary and intentional. Involuntary restriction can feel intolerable. It can also help immensely when you are overloaded. And again, it’s hard to explain exactly why.

Although I clearly see how this criterion matches my life, I have mixed feelings about “special interest” as the term to describe it. It’s the common vernacular, so using the term provides common ground with others. But the phrase seems to minimize it to me. This pervades your life and it can seriously disrupt it at times. Of course, part of the underlying reason for my reaction might be that I can’t help hearing Dana Carvey every time I see it.


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  1. Posted February 12, 2017 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    My guess of what makes an interest “special” is other people’s perception of it.
    Plus the more typical an interest is, less likely it’ll be seen as a special one. So if you’re female, having an interest in fashion or makeup or celebrities is not going to be seen as special unless it’s the only thing you ever talk about.
    The odder the interest (for age and gender especially), the more likely it’ll be “special”. Airplanes? For me certainly, being a person with femaless way over 30, i should care about fashion etc etc, not airplanes. So i fight back with caring about airplanes, knowing technical details, just so I don’t have to have only more normal interests (my normal one? Oh, accessibility. Sigh… kind of helps i use it and need it, kind of can feel weird when others think accessibility users shouls be and look of specific kinds. Forgettaboutit… so trying to pick a few others, equally weird ones)

  2. Posted February 12, 2017 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    “Normal” topics fit the criteria if they are unusual in intensity. Lots of mine fall in that area. Though some of them were less mainstream when I was young.

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