- Riley Jay Sironen
What is a Special Interest?
As quoted in my previous article, "Staying Hydrated Using Special Interests," special interests are seen as a way for neurodivergent people to understand the world and people better. They use their special interests to help them stimulate and regulate emotions and feelings when feeling under or overwhelmed. Additionally, they may use it as a tool to communicate with others (as opposed to small talk). Special interests are more than a hobby or something someone likes. A neurodivergent person often spends lots of time (and sometimes lots of money) on their particular interest. This can last months, years, or a lifetime. It is also possible to have multiple special interests.
It is also important to note that while it is common for a special interest to be around things that can be labeled as "childish" or "out of the norm," autistic adults can also have special interests around things that are considered "age-appropriate" (adding to why many adults go their entire life not realizing they are autistic).
Looking back, I definitely had special interests growing up. As a kid, my special interest would have been considered cats and dogs. I had stuffed animals of various types and breeds and many books on the topic. My Halloween costume was often a wild cat. While playing on my own, I either had an imaginary dog (and I always could tell you what exact breed), or I was the dog. And, of course, my entire world was turned upside down when our family finally got its own real dog!
In high school and early college, my special interest would have been considered Spiderman. I had Spiderman everything! Shirts, bedding, school supplies, accessories, and so on. In fact, for my high school graduation party, instead of "typical" gifts (e.g., items for a dorm room or money), I was mostly given Spiderman-themed gifts (from toys to school supplies to random items found at a dollar store, and so on). When receiving these gifts, my community was very supportive of my interest - which was made clear by all the items I received.
As an adult, it was much more difficult to accept this part of me (mainly because it was not until recently that I realized I was autistic). When I went to college, I was surrounded by a community that didn't find it "cool" to like "childish" things. I would find friends who agreed with my interest, but I would also come across others who wondered when I was going to start "acting my age" (I also was not out as transgender at the time, so many wondered when I would begin to "act my gender" as well). So I stopped (as much as one can stop liking something) and gradually got rid of the Spiderman collection I had created. I started to buy more "age-appropriate" items so that I blended in with the rest of my peers and classmates.
I didn't have anything identifiable about me at this point. Nothing I had or wore screamed, "This is who I am and what makes me different from you." I think it's why I threw so much of myself into my transgender identity, as this was also around the time I came out (which is talked about more in my article, "Thoughts While Researching (09/24/2022)").
Fast forward to today, December 1, 2022. I have a grounded understanding of who I am and who I am becoming - and part of that includes understanding what being autistic is for me. As I continue to grow into my identities and work alongside them, I have been met with many exciting new things about myself and many frustrating things. Just like coming out as queer, some things in life become much more manageable. I feel freer because I no longer wonder "what's wrong with me," and I no longer feel I have to hide who I truly am. But on the other hand, I can no longer use "I don't know why I feel this way" as an excuse to avoid conversation. And, just like coming out, it can feel like people have more questions than answers about my identity. So, in situations that I hoped would be easier because now I have the vocabulary to explain why I react or feel a certain way, I am learning that that doesn't mean people will suddenly accept my traits and flaws. To give a modern-day reference (as pictured below in a tweet from @chloeshayden), the world doesn't view the neurodivergent community like they view Wednesday Addams; they still consider the community confusing and hard to be around.
What this is leading up to is where special interests come into play. In my experience, a special interest is more than just something I like or find fascinating. It is what I go back to when I am anxious, nervous, upset, overwhelmed, and even when I have something worth celebrating but don't know where to put my extra energy.
Not that you were asking, but I have been waiting for my chance this whole article to tell and show you my recent special interest! In addition to the ones I grew up with (take me to a zoo or a Marvel or Disney-themed place, and I will be at my absolute happiest!) I currently have a special interest in Pokémon. The show, the cards, the games - you name it, and I am probably about it! And don't worry; I included some pictures of my proudest collectibles below. 🥰
If you have a trainer in your family or want to share the importance of a special interest with others, feel free to share my article! If you feel the need or want to support me further, you can buy me a coffee (https://ko-fi.com/rileyjaysironen) or send me a tip through Venmo (@AustinBlack9), CashApp ($AustinBlack9) or PayPal (firstname.lastname@example.org).