Special Interests

Many people with autism /asperger syndrome have a special interest. These vary from person to person and are unique to each individual on the spectrum. These tend to start from a young age and can change over time.

Why special interests are so important to people with autism

Provide a time to relax and destress.

Makes initiating conversations easier.

Can provide structure and predictability to the person’s day.

Friendships can develop through a shared interest.

Special interest can also be a great way for someone with autism to study in the area they are interested in and gain employment in this field.

Can special interests affect someone with autism negatively?

While special interests are important to people with autism, they can sometimes cause friction in households or between peers and colleagues.

How to help if a special interest affects someone negatively

Understand why your family member enjoys focusing on their special interest Could the increased amount of time spent on the special interest be due to anxiety or boredom?

Increase structure into the day. This can reduce anxiety and boredom levels, which may reduce the negative impact of the special interest.

Help reduce anxiety. This can be with mental health professionals, or home supports like mindfulness and meditation.

Set boundaries. It can be important to set limits on special interests. This can gradually happen over a number of weeks or months.

Example of how to set boundaries

Ben’s special interest is history and he loves talking about the new books he is reading and new facts he has learned. However, Ben is unable to concentrate in school or communicate with his peers because he only wants to talk about history. After addressing his anxiety levels and need for structure, Bens parents set boundaries on how often Ben can talk about history. For example;

1. Ben is allowed to talk about history as he usually does, but is introduced to the idea of this time being limited to allow him to make friends and enjoy other activities.

2. Create a plan with Ben, with visual supports if he would prefer, so that he can see the changes that will happen each week.

3. Decide with Ben if he would prefer to talk about history in smaller chunks throughout the day, or larger chunks but less often.

4. Week 1, Ben is now allowed to talk about history every hour, for 15 minutes.

5. For week 2, Ben is now allowed to talk about history for ten minutes every hour.

6. For week 3, Ben is now able to talk about history for 10 minutes every 1.5 hours.

7. In the fourth week, Ben will now talk about history for 10 minutes every 2 hours.

This process will provide Ben with the skills to be able to concentrate in school, and socialise with his peers and focus his attention to other important aspects of his life. Please remember that it is really important to not prevent someone from spending time on their special interest. This is something which is very important for people with autism and should never be eliminated from their lives.

When a special interests becomes problematic

Some people with autism may struggle with setting aside the special interest to complete tasks during the day. This is when a special interest becomes an obsession and is heavily motivated by anxiety. This can have an impact on the persons health and wellbeing. If any of the following issues arise, it may help to seek support from a mental health professional:
The person is not enjoying the special interests but are unable to stop.

There is a significant impact on other people, like family members and carers.

It is preventing them from concentrating in school, college or work.

Forming or maintaining friendships being negatively impacted.